Prisons, Crime and American Society

John ArmstrongCulture

The number of adults imprisoned in the United States reached an all-time high according to a new report released late this week. With this report came a great deal of discussion about this problem.

There are 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons, nearly 1% of the adult population. The Pew Center reports that this has also led to even higher costs to the taxpayers in the U.S. Last year the fifty states spent $49 billion on corrections. (The federal government spent $1 billion on prisons.) This rate has been growing at 6% annually for twenty years. Over the same period of time real spending on prisons has risen 127% compared to 21% on higher education, to use but one contrast. The Pew Center report suggests that for all this money there hasn’t been a "convincing return for public safety."

The issue is indeed complex. I have spent some time inside prisons teaching and preaching. I have also studied the prison system, and its numerous problems, with some degree of interest. There is a lot about our system to not like. A major problem is properly separating the truly dangerous felons from the less dangerous. Another problem is that our system does not include the biblical concept of restitution, which would improve the situation (especially with non-violent crime) immensely. But, for all of the hand wringing about this report we ought to ask another question. "Is there any correlation between the number of people in prison and the rate of violent crimes?"

Crime_factor_3Consider the chart I have included and you will get a perspective on this question that many who will discuss this will never present. It seems rather clear that the more we incarcerate violent criminals, thus getting them out of society at large, the lower the violent crime rate goes across the board.

So we have spent a ton of money on prisons but consider this—a study published in the University of Chicago’s Journal of Law and Economics in 1999 found a net loss of $1.1 trillion a year, or $4,118 per American, due to crime. So it seems the amount spent on prisons must be measured against the cost to society when a violent crime is actually committed.

Another argument, and I hear this one from well-meaning evangelicals involved in prison ministries, is that it costs less to send a kid to Harvard than to prison. The reasoning here is fallacious. We do not send people to prison so they cannot get an education, we send them there because they are considered a serious threat to civil life in the United States. The comparison is interesting but totally irrelevant.

With some exceptions most of those in prison are there for very bad crimes. They are there after they have been given due process and court trials at great expense. And our justice system, as flawed as it is, is still the best in the world. (The exceptions do not overturn the fact that most of the time the system gets it right.) For the overwhelming majority of inmates they are where they should be and we are all much safer, so it seems.

Prison reform is always an issue but do not argue that there is no correlation between getting violent criminals off the streets and the drop in violent crimes, at least not unless you have a better argument than the one this graph provides.