The Ineffectiveness Of Incarceration Essays

This item has been corrected.

Last week, president Obama vowed to end mass incarceration, the imprisonment of 2.2 million Americans. He’s commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders—but ending the practice will require a major policy change at the state and federal level. The sooner this is done, the better. Evidence from the last 40 years suggests the mass imprisonment policy was a tragic failure. Putting more people in prison not only ruined lives, it may have created more new crime than it prevented.

There are five times as many people in prison today—nearly 5% of the population will be imprisoned at some point—as there were in the 1970s. The increase in crime during the 1960s and ’70s motivated Americans to get tough on crime, which took several forms. The most striking of these was putting lots of people in prison. Imprisonment is supposed to reduce crime in two ways: it takes criminals off the street so they can’t commit new crimes (incapacitation) and it discourages would-be criminals from committing crime (deterrence).

But neither of these outcomes came to pass.

A new paper from University of Michigan economics professor Michael Mueller-Smith measures how much incapacitation reduced crime. He looked at court records from Harris County, Texas from 1980 to 2009.Mueller-Smith observed that in Harris County people charged with similar crimes received totally different sentences depending on the judge to whom they were randomly assigned. Mueller-Smith then tracked what happened to these prisoners. He estimated that each year in prison increases the odds that a prisoner would reoffend by 5.6% a quarter. Even people who went to prison for lesser crimes wound up committing more serious offenses subsequently, the more time they spent in prison. His conclusion: Any benefit from taking criminals out of the general population is more than off-set by the increase in crime from turning small offenders into career criminals.

High recidivism rates are not unique to Texas: Within 5 years of release more than 75% of prisoners are arrested again.

Why does prison turn people into career criminals?

Prison obliterates your earnings potential. Being a convicted felon disqualifies you from certain jobs, housing, or voting. Mueller-Smith estimates that each year in prison reduces the odds of post-release employment by 24% and increases the odds you’ll live on public assistance. Time in prison also lowers the odds you’ll get or stay married. Being in prison and out of the labor force degrades legitimate skills and exposes you to criminal skills and a criminal network. This makes crime a more attractive alternative upon release, even if you run a high risk of returning to prison.

You could argue prison is still worth it if long sentences discouraged people from committing crime in the first place. Mueller-Smith estimates a one-year prison sentence would only be worth it (in terms of prison cost and forgone economic potential) if it deterred at least 0.4 fewer rapes, 2.2 assaults, 2.5 robberies, 62 larcenies or prevented 4.8 people from becoming a habitual drug user. And the deterrent effect is not this powerful—not even close. There exists little evidence that the possibility of a long prison sentence is much of a crime deterrent at all.

If long prison sentences was truly a deterrent, juveniles would stop committing crimes when they turn 18 and face the possibility of more jail time. But they don’t. There are several reasons why: First, criminals, who are often young men, tend to be impulsive and to discount the future. The possibility of a longer prison sentence is too far away to pose as a deterrent. Second, even after they turn 18, there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty around the length of their sentence. The Harris County data show jail time often depends on the judge that’s assigned, the prosecutor, available evidence, and how busy the court is, which determines the odds that someone convicted ends up with a plea bargain. Longer sentences aren’t much of a deterrent because, even in our era of mass incarceration, the possibility of actually going to prison is too uncertain and too far in the future to meaningfully impact behavior.

The one exception seems to be when there’s a high degree of certainty around the punishment. The 3-strikes rule in California levies draconian sentences on 3-time offenders—with near certainty, even if the crimes are fairly minor. There is some evidence that if someone has two strikes, they are less likely to commit a third offense.

So if mass incarceration has not deterred crime, what could work?

Would-be criminals respond to incentives like everyone else. If they sense the cost and risk associated with crime has increased in a meaningful way, they are more likely to obey the law.That’s why an effective deterrent is increasing the perceived probability of being arrested. Studies show if arrests increase 10%, crime falls by 3% to 5%. The simplest way to increase the perceived probability is to put more police on the street. Florida State’s Jonathan Klick and George Mason economist Alex Tabarrok estimate that raising terror alert levels increased police presence by 50%. It is not clear if that meant less terrorism, but more police decreased auto-theft by 43% and burglary by 15%.

More police reduce crime, while longer sentences don’t, because of how criminals perceive risk. Most people commit crime thinking they won’t get caught. Seeing more police changes this and increases the perceived cost of committing crime.

A notorious example of this is the dramatic crime drop that occurred in New York City in the 1990s. There are many reasons crime fell, including a stronger economy that offered better, legal alternatives to crime. But a major factor was that the New York police force grew by 35%. There is little evidence that arresting people for misdemeanors prevented them from committing more serious crimes later, which was the philosophy at the time. But crime did fall because arrests increased for all kinds of crime.

The rest of America also experienced a big drop in crime during mass incarceration. But this was for myriad reasons: Crime fell because of a booming economy, changing trends in drug and alcohol use, an aging population, and other more effective police methods. It’s possible that crime would have been even lower if we hadn’t put so many people in prison, and turned a generation of young men into hardened criminals.

Correction: This post originally stated that 5% of the US population is in prison; 5% of the US population will be imprisoned at some point.

Originally written for a competition by the Howard League for Penal Reform for essays on the topic of “Why Prisons Don’t Work”. You can read the winning (and excellent) essays here.

It is often said “prison works”. It is less often said what it means for a prison to “work”. Traditionally prisons have been argued to serve at least one of three functions: to punish the prisoner, to protect the public, and to rehabilitate the offender to prevent them committing another crime. However, on closer inspection, the reasons given seem to have secondary important to the need for society to feel like something is being done, that justice is being served, that law and order is being kept, with near-total disregard for those who find themselves shut out of society with no hope of redemption.

The first function given for prison, punishment, has always seemed to have the least force. Setting aside the dubious civility of a society which seeks revenge upon its citizenry, is spending £30,000 a year on keeping someone in prison when most prisoners really hurting them, or us? (1) Rehabilitation, a far more worthy aim, is chronically underfunded and ultimately useless in a system which is often referred to as a “university of crime”, where young impressionable offenders quickly pick up new skills from veteran prisoners and criminals and escalate their offences when they are released. Which leaves the protection of the public as the remaining reason, and the reason that prisons came about in the first place. Imprisoning those who threaten others seems slightly more justifiable. But this has to be balanced with the human rights of those convicted of crimes themselves – can we justify the imprisonment of such people? Does our society ultimately benefit from keeping people away under lock and key?

In 1993, the psychologist Terrie Moffett published a paper in the Psychological Review that argued that there were two fundamental types of prisoner – the adolescent-limited and the lifelong-persistent. The adolescent-limited are young, primarily men, who commit crime to support themselves, for fun, as part of a gang, or other reasons, who eventually mature, settle down and give up the lifestyle that was contributing to their criminality. The second type, lifelong-persistent, are people who commit crimes casually and often, moving through the criminal justice system in a perpetual cycle of crime-arrest-conviction-incarceration-release-crime and rarely, if ever, breaking out of that cycle. There are a variety of reasons both types end up in prison, including poor education, drug addiction, racism (young black men are twice as likely to go to prison than to university. (2)) and mental health difficulties, which are again rarely, if ever, given the attention they deserve.

Neither type of prisoner are prevented from committing more crime or given the chance to change their lives through serving prison sentences. The adolescent-limited, young and not really thinking about the consequences of their actions, find themselves permanently disadvantaged for the rest of their lives; upon release from prison, they struggle to find housing, meaningful employment and integration into society. It becomes easier to continue to commit more crimes to support themselves. Some will settle down and find councils and employers to give them a chance in life, but their potential, especially the potential of young black men, is severely compromised by serving a prison sentence, a physical block to their life’s progress as well as a permanent addition to their CV. Likewise, the lifelong-persistent are let down by our society. To deal with the reasons for people returning to prison over and over again, we require drug treatment programmes, mental health treatment, adult education, housing programmes, and ways of giving people pride and hope in themselves. But, when regarding that list, how much of it can be achieved effectively in a prison?

However, the rhetoric of the redtops of this country considers such proposals merely “pampering criminals”. Their attitude is largely that prison is for punishing people that society disapproves of. But if by prison “working”, we mean “reduces crime”, the only crime reduced is that which the imprisoned would have committed while doing time – as mentioned earlier, the recidivism rate for people who have been to prison more than twice is nearly 70%, so clearly prison does not “teach people a lesson”. But most advocates of prison do not care about that: they want to “see justice served” as opposed to actually seeing crime reduced and those who commit crime changing their lives. Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were both locked up for ten years – one has now been rehabilitated and is trying to build a new life, one has gone back into prison for breaking his parole. The press wants to see them both imprisoned at great cost to the taxpayer regardless of their current circumstances, and with the broad support of their readers, it seems. With such calls, can we really say society cares about whether prison works or not?

Ultimately, the way we treat prisoners as a society reflect on our humanity. Dostoevsky famously wrote “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” However, it is also the mark of a functional, thriving society that its citizens feel safe and protected from those who would do them harm. People who kill, rape, steal, assault and engage in other anti-social behaviour are causing us as individuals and as a community harm and need to be dealt with. We need evidence-based solutions to tackle the problems that leads people to commit crime. But is prison really effective at this? Can prison deal with poverty, drug addiction, racism, patriarchy, social breakdown, senses of insecurity, resentment, or entitlement? Unlikely. Perhaps prisons “work” to give us a sense of satisfaction that something has been done – but do prisons “work” to create a safer, more secure society that protects its citizens, prevents crime, and rehabilitates those citizens who find themselves on the wrong side of the law? The evidence would suggest that as a society we have got our definition very wrong.

(1) Kanazawa, Satishi (24th August, 2008), “When crime rates go down, recidivism rates go up”, Psychology Today. Accessed 19th April, 2010.
(2) Smart Justice (2004), “The Racial Justice Gap: Race and the Prison Population Briefing”, pg 2.

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