Putting a Price on Crime

Posted on by Townsend Myers

What costs 70 billion dollars a year, and is generally regarded as an abject failure? Answer: our criminal justice system. In the last 20 years, the incarceration rate in this country has quadrupled, but the crime problem has remained relatively unchanged. We have tried to “buy” our way out of it –  by building more prisons, hiring more police officers – as if enforcement and incarceration were the answer to the problem. But it hasn’t worked.

In an article for Wired Magazine, David Wolman argues that something called convictonomics should be the new model – “a coldly rational economics-based approach to crime and punishment”. The approach calls for a cost-benefit analysis of our nation’s incarceration policy, assigning a “price” to incarceration for crimes based on the net benefit to society.

The Problem With the Traditional Model

Historically the criminal justice model been based on the dual ideas of deterrence and segregation, and has gone something like this: the benefit to society in minimizing criminal behavior (deterrence) and keeping people safe from sociopaths (segregation) is worth whatever it costs to incarcerate convicted criminals. If the jails fill up, build more. If there aren’t enough police to fill the jails, hire more, etc., etc.

But there is a breaking point where the net benefit to society of incarceration is outweighed by it’s cost. The trouble with the old model is that we passed that point a long time ago. We are simply spending too much, and getting too little for it.

A New Approach to the Problem

The idea of convictonomics is refreshingly simple and sound. By assigning a true value to all of the factors in the equation (i.e. the type of crime, the value of an individual’s freedom, the value of public safety, and the cost of incarceration) we can determine at what point the cost equals the benefit.

Once we figure out the value to society of incarcerating a drug offender, for instance (or, if you will, the cost to society of not incarcerating him), we can more accurately determine how much we should be spending to do it. As we continue to assign values to both the costs and the benefits for each kind of crime, we can get a better picture of where (or whether) our money should be spent on incarceration for the various kinds of crimes.

Alternatives to Incarceration

What’s most interesting about this to me as a criminal defense attorney, is the opportunity this approach presents to more aggressively explore alternatives to incarceration as a modality of punishment and rehabilitation. Wolman cites a study by David Abrams, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has done a “convictonomics-esque” analysis of the California prison system. Abrams’ analysis concluded that the benefit of releasing 1000 prisoners just 60 days early would outweigh the costs of release by around $5 million. Imagine the cost savings if we could keep those 1000 prisoners from being incarcerated at all in the first place.

Once we are able to value all of the relevant factors under the convictonomics approach, we can then better understand and explain exactly how to deploy resources to particular crimes and their commensurate punishments. It might be (and I submit, likely is) that for crimes like drug possession and low-level theft cases, for instance, the cost to incarcerate is dramatically higher than the benefit to society. If alternatives to incarceration are explored for these types of cases, we might find that the lower costs more acurately match the societal “value” of the crime.

It’s all very interesting, and frankly pretty compelling. Kudos to David Wolman for writing the story, and Wired.com for publishing it. We will have to wait and see if anything like this approach takes hold.  What is certain is that something has to change, and as someone immersed in the field, I can say that I hope the changes start to break along these lines. The time for continuing to grow the prison industrial complex is over. Maybe it’s time to give convictonomics a try.



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