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.

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  1. Adam S March 1, 2008 at 11:48 am

    Not trying to be contrarian John, but I think you miss the point of the Harvard line. It is a question of preemption. It would be worth it in the long term to spend the money to get kids a good education as opposed to spending the money on education later. Around 80 percent of prisoners read below a 4th grade level. Prison officials use 3rd or 4th grade reading scores to make long term predictions about the number of prison beds that are needed. Violent crime is a problem, but a large percentage are in jail for non-violent or drug offences. I just looked and between 20 and 25 percent of all people are in jail because of a drug crime (not a crime with high or drunk, but a crime for possession or sale of drugs). Most of these people would be better served by good rehab programs. A series of studies in California said that for every one dollar spent on drug rehab by prisons there was a long term savings of seven dollars from reduced recidivism.
    This doesn’t mention anything at all about the racial problems and defense problems for poor defendants. You are from Illinois and understand the large number of death row inmates that were not guilty. My brother-in-law had two DUIs. No one was hurt, but his penalty was $2000 fine and lose of his drivers license for a year. Now he went to rehab and has been clean for two years, but that was not part of the judgment. I know several others that were arrested for small possession of drugs, did not have a good lawyer and were Black, and served fairly long terms.
    The prison system is complicated and I don’t want to minimize the fact that many people do need to be locked up. But we as Christians needs to make sure we are advocating for a fair system that really does do long term good. The fact that 1 in 9 African American males between 20 and 35 are currently in jail is a long term problem for society. It is one that I significantly correlated to the fact that only 35 percent of African American males will graduate in four years of high school in Chicago. About 30 percent more will graduate or get a GED within 6 to 8 years.
    Sorry for the ramble.

  2. Steve Scott March 1, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    John, much to chew on, so some rapid-fire observations and comments: * how is “violent” crime defined? * the chaplain of our church’s jail ministry says the majority of inmates are drug related convicts, not violent crimes * Does the cost of crime figure include restitution via insurance premiums because our system refuses for criminals to pay for their own crimes? * The chart compares a percentage with an absolute number and doesn’t take population growth into consideration * The blue line reflects my own personal [keen] observation of fan rowdiness at baseball games * What if we combined the biblical mandate for restitution with another principle, “he who does not work [to make restitution], shall not eat? So if a criminal refuses to make personal restitution, he starves himself to death *
    One thing should seem obvious in all this. Whenever we sow the wind in failing to follow God’s laws in a criminal justice system, we reap the whirlwind.

  3. Emil March 11, 2008 at 5:27 pm

    Your graph is in error: number in prison is on the left and crime rate is on the right.
    Do you have URL’s for the sources of these data?

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