3/31/2005

Incarceration of Criminals: Negatively Affecting the Economy?

In an interesting study titled "Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s," some negative points of locking up criminals are discussed. One that is mentioned is a greater difficulty for the criminal in finding a job with the disadvantage of a criminal record. Another, is "breakup of families through divorce an parental rights." I used to think that whatever happened to a criminal was not my problem and that that person deserves whatever comes to them in the form of a punishment. However, through education, I have learned that other people's problems can often be my problems, at least indirectly. A person not being able to obtain a job, in my view, is a negative impact on the economy. The economy obviously affects me. Breakup of families has also proven to be detrimental to the economy. I would prefer to see families stay together. I know it's better for society and thus better for the country. So, maybe incarceration isn't having the positive effect that we thought it should. Maybe it's not the best choice (there is much more detailed discussion and backing in the article). Unfortunately, I can't think of an alternative.

24 comments:

BOB said...

While incarceration may not be the most ideal decision, it works. It takes criminals off our streets and locks them up for a time with the aspiration that they will learn from their faults. Many families are ruined by incarceration, but many are saved. Imagine the effects on the economy if we did not use incarceration.

Dr. Tufte said...

This is where economics (as a field) can potentially really make a difference to society. At the bottom, I also have a policy recommendation.

The reason is that sorting out the net effect of something like this is frightfully hard because the situation isn't an experiment. Statistics are easier in experimental sciences because you do all the hard stuff required to get clear answers in the way in which you set up the experiment. Drawing conclusions is much harder when you can't run the experiment over and over again to see what happens.

For statistical analysis of non-experimental data, economics is probably the top (or very near the top) science.

But I tend to doubt that any research on this has been done (if it has, I don't know about it). My guess is that it is devilishly hard to get good data on what the costs are of the difficulty finding a decent job or a family breakup. If you could get that, econometricians have tons of tools for ferreting out what is going on.

So, what should we do if we can't measure this sort of thing? Well, what Sandy is really driving at is the external costs of a criminal act done by an individual. We can't shift those external costs onto the criminal easily (so that they will recognize the higher costs of their crime and perhaps be dissuaded). The solution is to increase the penalties for being caught. That will tend to reduce the number of criminals who end up getting caught and incarcerated and the associated external costs.

Steve Martin used to have a routine in which he advocated the death penalty for parking violations. That's flippant, but moving in that direction is the tradeoff we have to make to reduce external costs of crime.

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