The Great California Prison Experiment

I published an academic paper back in 1996 that tried to measure the impact that changes in the prison population have on the crime rate. It turns out that this is a hard question.

You can’t just look across states and compare incarceration rates and crime rates, because the places with the worst crime problem will also tend to have the most prisoners.

Holding constant the punishments, the more crime that occurs, the greater the prison population. So correlations just are not very useful for determining whether prisons are effective or not.

“While those crime numbers sound bad, according to my estimates, letting out the prisoners is more or less a wash from a societal cost-benefit perspective.”

What you need is something more like a randomized experiment in which, for extraneous reasons, a whole bunch of prisoners get let out (or a whole bunch of extra criminals get locked up). For obvious reasons, the National Science Foundation would never give me a research grant to do that myself.

Indirectly, however, the A.C.L.U. (or in the California case, another prisoners’ rights group) does the next best thing. It brings lawsuits against state prison systems arguing that the prisons are so overcrowded that they represent “cruel and unusual” punishment. The A.C.L.U. virtually always wins these suits. The state appeals, and roughly a decade after the suit is filed, the court’s initial decision is upheld and the A.C.L.U. is victorious.

As I report in my paper, these lawsuits have a large impact on the prison populations in the affected states. After the suits are filed, but before any court decisions are handed down, prison populations grow more slowly in the litigation states.

The preliminary court decision doesn’t have much of an effect. But when the final verdict is handed down, prison populations shrink by about 15 percent relative to the rest of the country over the next three years.

Yesterday, a prisoners’ rights group won a preliminary decision against the state of California’s prison system. Consistent with my earlier results, the lawsuit already seems to have had some impact on California’s prison population. For instance, in 2007 California’s prison population shrank by about 1 percent, whereas the overall U.S. prison population grew by nearly 2 percent. It will take a few years before a final court decision is handed down, but the likely outcome is that five or six years from now there will be 25,000 fewer inmates than there otherwise would have been.

What does this mean for crime? If my estimates are correct, ultimately violent crime will be roughly 6 percent higher in California than it would have been absent the lawsuit. That is roughly 150 extra homicides a year, 500 additional rapes, and 4,500 more robberies.

While those crime numbers sound bad, according to my estimates, letting out the prisoners is more or less a wash from a societal cost-benefit perspective. The money we save from freeing the prisoners is on the same order of magnitude as the pain and suffering associated with the extra crime.

I do have one very specific policy recommendation to the state of California. If they do a mass release of prisoners, it should be done with strings attached. Namely, if the released prisoner gets convicted of a crime again in the future, his sentence the next time around should be whatever it normally would be plus all of the time that he should have served on his current sentence that gets cut short because of the early release.

This rule would strengthen the incentives for the ex-cons to stay straight. Italy enforced such a policy after a mass release, and it appears to have been quite effective.


Bill N.

@#3, #9

" 1) "I've found this statement quite surprising and can't help but feel very curious about how "pain and suffering" can be measured against economic benefit. Would you mind expanding on it a bit more"

Its relatively easy, Courts do it all the time in wrongful death suits"

Even easier, individuals do it all the time in deciding to purchase insurance against the "pain and suffering"

Brad Hicks

You say if they reoffend, they should be locked up even longer. I have to ask: WHERE?

Avi Rappoport

"....unless California has a much higher ratio of non-violent to violent offenders in its prison population, we probably can't expect a better result..."

I think we do have a relatively high proportion of mostly non-violent drug offenders to those convicted of violent crimes. We have some mandatory minimums and the inflexible "three strikes" laws, which have bloated our prison population. We also have a very very powerful prison guards union.

$45,000 per year to incarcerate someone. I can think of better things to do with a big chunk of that money. Food stamps come to mind.

hal

Whether in California or nationally I don't have data upon which to comment. But I did find it of interest that our local jail population is more than 50% parole violators. Programs involving more intense supervision of parolees have been found to be far cheaper than jailing them. (And eliminating an official policy of "one-strike" for parolees on minor or technical violations such as missed appointments.)

John Neff

The national average is that about 50% of the prison population is released each year. That means the simplest way to depopulate a prison is to not admit non-violent prisoners that were convicted of low severity offenses. This would give the judge an opportunity to select an appropriate prison alternative. In a few months the prison population will fall to the required level as prisoners are released on parole or expiration of sentence.

The alternative is to select prisoners to be released according a set of criteria (an expensive time consuming process) and prisoners passed over may cause major problems. However California may be required to release a specific set of prisoners depending on the nature of the law suit and the directions of the resultant court order.

Lars

Mr Levitt, I must admit that I'm curious as to how you determine the costs of homicides and rapes?

Saurav

I read the paper on "Collective Clemency Bill" in Italy, The only meaningful conclusion I could draw from that paper is - Crime rate will drop in the severity of punishment is increased.
The clemency bill and the following studies just provided a framework to check this fact out. Intuitively this seems correct - the deterrent effect of imprisonment will reduce the propensity to commit the crime.
Thus a more valid policy recommendation could be to increase the no. of years of incarceration for each crime category.
I agree that in the short run this might increase the prison population, however I will stick my neck out to say that over a period of time less no. of crimes will be committed and thereby reduce the prison population.

Thalia

The reason Mr. Lewitt's prediction will be correct is that many drug crimes have mandatory minimum sentences associated with them. So while the sentence range for murder is between 6 months and life,with no mandatory minimum, the sentence range for possessing marijuana is much narrower (e.g. more than 100 plants means mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years, of which 85% must be served). So California will be forced to release the rapists and murders, because the war on some drugs has some strict laws.

James

"For instance, in 2007 California's prison population shrunk by about 1 percent, whereas the overall U.S. prison population grew by nearly 2 percent."

So if prison populations are shrinking on a statewide basis but growing on a national basis, who's getting the bigger share of the prisoners? Surely the disparity means that other states' prisons are growing at a rate greater than the national average.

Troy H.

"The money we save from freeing the prisoners is on the same order of magnitude as the pain and suffering associated with the extra crime."

The money saved can be spent on ex-offender programs connected to the Second Chance Act that was approved last year. Re-integrating former prisoners back into society with opportunities for jobs, education, and social programs should be taken into account. Focusing only on an increase in crime rates will cause an alarmist reaction that almost always knee-jerks to more conservative policies of containment and control.

Laura B

If there was any kind of a support system for a person leaving prison (IE a job, house, ability to get a job or house, or even to live in public housing) then crime would not go up so substantially. when people have no other options they fall into old habits, unfortunately our society has yet to learn this lesson.

ruralcounsel

#9:
1) "I've found this statement quite surprising and can't help but feel very curious about how "pain and suffering" can be measured against economic benefit. Would you mind expanding on it a bit more"

Its relatively easy, Courts do it all the time in wrongful death suits

I suspect that a "wrongful death" in a civil suit is not equivalent to a violent homicide in terms of pain and suffering. Especially the pain and suffering of the victim's family and friends.

Nor the societal costs of dealing with violent death caused by predators instead of shear accident and negligence. I think the anxiety and stress of being actively hunted is much worse than that experienced by merely being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And thus the societal costs are much higher in terms of loss of trust.

You're taking the easy and obvious way out, and it doesn't pass the smell test.

The point made by a great number of commenters about selectively targeting who gets released is a great one, however. We've filled our prisons with lots of nonviolent drug users and low level dealers, more based on administrative and puritanical principle than moral and ethical ones. Someday, logic will win out and we will quit trying to punish people for self-medicating their various personality and psychologcal problems, and society will quit worrying about what molecules are circulating around in someone's brain any more than they currently worry about what thoughts are circulating around up there too. We'll go back to punishing true anti-social behavior ... the malum in se, and not the arbitrary and capricious malum prohibitum. One can hope, anyway.

Meanwhile, we pay a horrific price, economically and socially, for our over-zealous puritanical impulses.

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Michael

The hidden thought in this statistical rubbish is that you could drop the crime rate to exactly zero if you imprison all California inhabitants.

Karl

"letting out the prisoners is more or less a wash from a societal cost-benefit perspective."

I don't understand why some people find this statement so appalling. As a society we make the cost-benefit judgments all the time where we save money and sacrifice people's lives. For example, we could put speed monitoring devices at every mile on every highway in the country and enforce a speed limit of 55 m.p.h. That would be expensive and we would save hundreds of lives, but we wouldn't implement such a system after a cost-benefit analysis.

I think it was Elliot Aaronson who claimed that randomly released prisoners had a lower rate of recidivism than those who served out their full term.

Kristin

You seem to misunderstand what the California judges ordered. They did not order a "release" of prisoners in the lay sense of the word, i.e., open the prison doors and let people walk out. Instead, they ordered that the state has to take steps to reduce the prison population. This may include, for example, changing the parole system so that parole isn't revoked for technical violations like missing an appointment with your parole officer, making it easier to earn good time credits, and diverting low level, non-violent offenders to community programs. Given this, your estimate of increased violent crime as a result of the ruling seems unfounded.

Moreover, the trial on which the California judges' ruling was based saw a great deal of evidence that the conditions of California prisons actually foster inmates' criminal tendancies. From that perspective, having low-level offenders not go to prison or stay shorter terms in prison would seem to make it less likely that those offenders would recidivate or, if they do recidivate, that they would not commit more serious crimes.

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blue92

> The hidden thought in this statistical rubbish is that you could drop the crime rate to exactly zero if you imprison all California inhabitants.

You seem to be confusing this post with the film "Escape from L.A."

I, for one, noticed no mention of Snake Plissken.

Steve

Quill wrote: "Those 5,150 victims and their family members would probably rather pay higher taxes than be assaulted or robbed. Unless they're Ron Paul supporters, of course."

And the other 38,000,000 (in California) want lower taxes.

The first thing to to address is the laws against drugs, prostitution and other similar "crimes". These are primarily economic opportunities for the poor and addicted. Legalize soft drugs and prostition. Supply addicts with what they need, in a controlled environment. Stop pandering to the real criminal class - the fundamentalisat zealots.

Then, the non violent 80% of the inmates - the economic class - could be released (and pardoned) with little consequense. They'd go back to digging ditches, washing dishes and all the other things that we now "import" Mexican labour for.

The main thing working against this very intelligent, cost effective and humane approach is the constant barrage of lies from society's right wing trash and scum - the Republicans. They thrive on making people fearful. ANd they now own most of the prisons.

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JC

Many will think it's insensitive to put a dollar value on someone's life or a wrongdoing. But this is process that's done in our court systems as well as insurance products.

We would always want to have 0 murders, 0 rapes, 0 robberies and such and if we had infinite resources, that may be possible. Unfortunately, there is a dollar cost in reducing crimes per year.

If you were in charge of the crime prevention budget, would you want to spend 100 dollars to reduce a murder count by 100 in a year? Of course. How about 100,000? Yeah, probably. What about 100 billion?

If you allow 30,000 to be the cost of housing an inmate per year the total cost for housing 25,000 inmates is approximately 75 million. This monetary value would be close to having the homicides be valued at 3 million, rapes at 500,000 and robberies at 10,000.

Again, putting a dollar value on someone's life may sound insensitive, but it is a requirement, to evaluate the situation objectively. Any type of decisions that our city leaders make, require objectivity with routine checks of morality.

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Ben

"The money we save from freeing the prisoners is on the same order of magnitude as the pain and suffering associated with the extra crime."

One thing I wonder is how the costs/benefits are spread out among members of society. While obviously the victims bear most of the burden here, more generally is this another example where the poor end up paying more than the rich? I'm just guessing that most of the crimes end up getting committed in poorer neighborhoods. As for the rich, would having fewer people incarcerated mean having to pay less in taxes for prisons?

George

No mention of the large numbers of illegals (or their kids) in the CA prison system. Prison overcrowding or the cost of building more new prisons could both be saved with a fence, and are both caused by the treasonous open borders crowd.