Normative Narratives

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Transparency Thursday: The Prison Paradox

It would seem natural that longer prison sentences would reduce crime. Given a stronger punishment, the “costs” of performing a crime should outweigh the benefits, causing a would-be criminal to rethink his actions and possibly decide against committing a crime. But there is another explanation of criminal activity; that for whatever reason the would be criminal simply does not have other viable options, therefore he will undertake a crime regardless of the potential punishment. In line with this view, recent evidence suggests that longer prison sentences do not have the desired crime-reducing effect:

“The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.”

By pushing families into “inter-generational poverty traps” keeping criminals in jail for longer causes more crime, not less. Having people in jails, typically black males (4.8% of black males in the U.S. are in prison, compared to 1.9% of Hispanic men and 0.7% of white men), leads to many one parent families. These one parent families are more likely to turn out criminals; without adequate parental guidance and financial security, crime is often the only solution for young minorities.

“‘Prison has become the new poverty trap,’ said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. ‘It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.’

Among African-Americans who have grown up during the era of mass incarceration, one in four has had a parent locked up at some point during childhood. For black men in their 20s and early 30s without a high school diploma, the incarceration rate is so high — nearly 40 percent nationwide — that they’re more likely to be behind bars than to have a job.

No one denies that some people belong in prison. Mr. Harris, now 47, and his wife, 45, agree that in his early 20s he deserved to be there. But they don’t see what good was accomplished by keeping him there for two decades, and neither do most of the researchers who have been analyzing the prison boom.

The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before”

“Raymond V. Liedka, of Oakland University in Michigan, and colleagues have found that the crime-fighting effects of prison disappear once the incarceration rate gets too high. “If the buildup goes beyond a tipping point, then additional incarceration is not going to gain our society any reduction in crime, and may lead to increased crime,” Dr. Liedka said.

The benefits of incarceration are especially questionable for men serving long sentences into middle age. The likelihood of committing a crime drops steeply once a man enters his 30s. This was the case with Mr. Harris, who turned his life around shortly after hitting 30.”

Long-term lockup rates, and poor job prospects for ex-cons, great a “prison culture” in poor neighborhoods. Older ex-con’s believe a return to jail is inevitable, young children believe jail is inevitable (because of what they have witnessed growing up); this pessimism leads to poor decision making and ultimately creates a self-fulfilling cycle of poor prospects, poor decision making, and subsequent prison terms (and perpetuates the inter-generational aspect of the poverty trap).

The ensuing prison sentence and related poverty trap has real social effects, according to some estimates:

“‘The social deprivation and draining of capital from these communities may well be the greatest contribution our state makes to income inequality,’ Dr. Braman said. ‘There is no social institution I can think of that comes close to matching it.’

Drs. DeFina and Hannon, the Villanova sociologists, calculate that if the mass incarceration trend had not occurred in recent decades, the poverty rate would be 20 percent lower today, and that five million fewer people would have fallen below the poverty line.

This story makes me think back to “Freakonomics“, the popular behavioral economics book by Steve Dubner and Stephen Lewitt. In the introduction of this book, the authors examine the reason for a marked drop in U.S. crime rates nationwide in the 1980s and 90s. They go over the obvious potential causes, stronger laws and incarceration penalties (and based on the time period, probably the same policies previously referenced in this story). Ultimately, the reason they come to for the drop in crime rates was completely unrelated to legal/penal policy; the legality and increasing number of abortions.

The argument was that most poorer families did not get abortions even though they did not want their children. These unwanted children were neglected, and unsurprisingly tended to become criminals. Once parents were given more power to determine when they had children, these unwanted children were never born to the benefit of society.

This story highlights an important aspect of any policy analysis. There will probably be unforeseen consequences to policy actions, both positive and negative. Longer prison sentences were meant to reduce crime, but they have not. Abortion legalization was supposed to be a civil liberty / social issue, but it ended up having a remarkable effect on crime rates. Often times, these unforeseen consequences of policy have a more dominant effect than the expected consequence. It is therefore important for politicians to remain open minded and constantly revisit the real world effects of a policy, regardless of how well that policy works in theory.

As the federal government looks for areas to make spending cuts, it would be beneficial for policymakers to revisit reducing prison sentences for certain crimes. It seems that shorter prison sentences would save money today via a lower prison bill, and save us money in the future in the form of lower future entitlement spending. Less spending on long prison terms and greater spending on social programs (which enhance ones future prospects and thus makes crime a less attractive alternative) should combine to break the “prison poverty trap”.

People need to be held responsible for their actions, but the punishment must fit the crime. Making an example of individuals in an attempt to deter future crime does not work. What it does is impose an unfair burden on both the tax-payer as well as the  family (children) of the incarcerated.

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