How to Cut Prison Costs Without Driving Up Crime?

(Photo: Samantha Marx)

Putting people in prison helps drive down crime but it’s not cheap, a fact that is troubling some states. So is there a way to cut  incarceration rates without spiking crime?  Yes, says economist Ben Vollaard in a recent article (long version) arguing in favor of “selective incapacitation”:

The idea of selective incapacitation is to make a distinction between offenders with a high and with a low propensity to commit crime. Those of the high propensity type – the prolific offenders – are responsible for a large share of violent and property crime (Tracy et al. 1990). To them, the default penalties have little deterrent effect. By making the length of a prison sentence conditional upon an offender’s criminal record, enhanced prison sentences can be targeted at this population. After all, by repeatedly breaking the law, these offenders reveal themselves to be of the prolific type (Polinsky and Rubinfeld 1991). Once the harsher sentences apply, the penalties may begin to make a difference, if not through deterrence, then by way of incapacitation in prison. 

While California’s attempts at selective incapacitation via its “three strikes” policy have been unpopular and unsuccessful, Vollaard found that a highly selective Dutch version in which “[o]nly offenders with ten or more offenses on their criminal record and a history of being resistant to any short-term rehabilitative programme faced the enhanced prison-terms” was much more effective:

We find that, on average, the sentence enhancements resulted in a 25% drop in acquisitive crime – exactly the types of crimes that the affected offenders committed. Figure 1 illustrates the average impact of the policy in the years after its introduction. We show that the law did not have an impact on violent and sexual crimes, offenses that were rarely committed by the affected offenders. We do not know of any crime policy in the history of the Netherlands that was similarly effective.

In addition, we find the benefits of the policy to exceed the costs by a large margin. These benefits go down rapidly with a more intensive use of the law, however. The marginal crime-reducing effect of convicting another prolific offender to an enhanced prison sentence declines by some 25% when going from low to high use of the law. During 2001-2007, the benefits of the policy remained higher than the costs, even for the cities which used the law most intensively.

Mike B

It is impossible to solve this problem without first determining what sorts of "crime" people care about. For example if drug use is a crime then surprise, most drug users will wind up as "prolific offenders" because its hard to stop using drugs. Moreover people who are poor or have mental illness are likewise going to run afoul of such a policy because a person in those situations are going to commit crimes as a function of their station in life.

What needs to happen is a cost benefit calculation. If social services like housing or drug treatment or food stamps or a state funded job eliminate the need or opportunity for someone to commit crimes and if it is cheaper to provide social services to a person than to lock them up in prison, then just cut them the check. Cutting social services doesn't make the poor go away. It only makes them more desperate and more likely to wind up in jail. Unfortunately most Americans would rather spend more to punish the poor than spend a smaller amount if it might somehow reward someone that is "undeserving".



“It is impossible to solve this problem without first determining what sorts of ‘crime’ people care about. For example if drug use is a crime then surprise, most drug users will wind up as ‘prolific offenders’ because it’s hard to stop using drugs.”

I had the same reaction. I suspect that most murderers have lower recidivism rates than speeders. What does that tell us about the optimal punishments for murderers and speeders? Not a lot, because we care more about murder than speeding.

“[P]eople who are poor or have mental illness are likewise going to run afoul of such a policy because a person in those situations are going to commit crimes as a function of their station in life.”

To be fair, the author speaks of “selective incapacitation.” Society has an interest in incapacitating people from engaging in certain behavior, regardless of the “fault” we attribute to the people who engage in the behavior. Maybe the incapacitation would take the form of civil commitment to mental health facilities.

“What needs to happen is a cost benefit calculation. [If we can solve the problem cheaper via wealth transfers than via incarceration], then just cut them the check.”

What Mike B said.



Sounds like a completely awful plan, waiting until a criminal chalks up "ten or more offenses on their criminal record" -- try explaining that to the criminal's victims. I live in Holland, and their soft-on-crime ideas are increasingly at odds with what the populace wants. America's three-strikes-you're-out is indeed draconian and perhaps scientifically ill-advised, but going all gently-gently on someone who has been charged with ten crimes (not to mention the dozens more that he was either not caught for or otherwise managed to avoid being charged with) is just insane, not to mention deeply disrespectful to civic society at large.
Also, why does this study/abstract rely on research published more than 20 years ago? Criminology has changed enormously since then.


This article will require a good long read. Ever since the Freakonomics book discussed the dubious studies citing a dozen different (and incorrect) reasons for the drop in crime in the 90s, I have a hard time trusting articles that claim a certain policy decision did it.

Joel Upchurch

That actual statistics are that violent crime and property crimes declined after the three strikes went into effect. I also would like to see Vollaard's statistics that these laws are unpopular.
Three strikes laws may not be the most efficient way to incarcerate persistent offenders, but better methods may not be constitutional.

It is possible that gps tagging might be more cost effective in some cases


I blinked at the "unpopular" bit too, but I believe the post is saying attempts to alter the three strikes law to make it more selective (i.e. put fewer people in prison) are unpopular, not the law itself.

Andrew B

As a Californian I am not sure I nor most of the voters think the three strike law has been "completely unsuccessful." Many think it has been a great success, although it might need a little tweaking.

Ben Miller

There's persuasive evidence that rather than reduce crime, imprisonment simply displaces it--away from our neighborhoods and into jails.


"away from our neighborhoods and into jails" - which is great.


It's only great if you think the inmates' continuous abuse of each other won't manifest itself on society as they're released back into the wild.


How about the lack of incentives for prisons not to release people who will crime again. In fact you could argue that private prisons have an incentive to make sure that their released prisoners offend again.

Dr. Constantinos Charalambous

What exactly is the high and low propensity of committing a crime? I argue in a recent article that I wrote that even if there was 100% of getting caught people would still commit crimes.


Making prisons less profitable rather than less costly is a key to lowering incarceration rates.

From the grand scale of private prisons "gaming the system" for higher incarceration rates to the Sheriff owned prisons of Louisiana the problem is rampant and awareness is only a Google search away and spreads to the phone providers and the caterers.

Require services to be provided "at cost" to prisons with severe audits for shrouded profits from every industry interacting with prisons and in a few decades the problem should be undone.

We have to deal with the horrific racial bias.


At cost" is how the government operates, not private enterprise. If we're going to require that private prisons operate at no profit, then we'd might as well just nationalize them (or whatever you'd call it at the state level). In order to properly tap into the innovations and efficiency of the free market, government has to understand and properly align the incentives of its vendors, and its own goals. Clearly this never happened in Louisiana.

Maybe incarceration should be done at cost but bonuses can be paid based on low rates of recidivism. We might also tie bonuses to things like educational attainment and employment status both during and after incarceration. People on this blog can probably come up with dozens of better ideas.

Eric M. Jones.

I'm sorry, but I must have struck my head and woke up stupid.... Aren't these very old ideas, old problems and obvious solutions that have been kicking around for many years?

1) Reduction of childhood poverty reduces crime downstream.
2) Locking up repeat offenders is a good thing.
3) The "War on Drugs" has been an abject failure.
4) If you include alcohol as a drug...hardly any mischief is done clean and sober.
5) Birth control is a good thing....crime-wise speaking.
6) When the testosterone level declines, so does crime.

Any more Mr. Obvious?


The only compelling piece of data I have heard in years was Freaklonomics abortion correlation. That was brilliant.

Three strikes and you're out needs wiggle room and should only be for violent crime. However, a person actually *convicted* of three violent felonies undoubtedly has many more uncaught or plea bargained down to misdemeanors.

Drug use should not be a reason for incarceration. That is not my idea of government's role, it's too damn expensive to society, and it turns nonviolent criminals into violent criminals through their experiences in the prison system.

Almost all drugs have been illegal at some point, including alcohol and cocaine and marijuana, or are obtainable in some legal/medical form, so the "attitude du decade" should not be enough to clear the high bar of losing your liberty.

Lastly, if you are sentenced to life in prison without parole, you should have the option of medically and peacefully ending your life. Keeping someone alive in a cage is cruel and unusual punishment.

Flame me on the last one :-)



Put them to work and give them the ability to shorten their stay based upon their level of work output. In this way, you can train some of them into the routine that makes for a productive citizen, give them the experience of satisfaction of a job well done and ultimately, train their brains to link effort to reward.


...or this:
No jail for drug users. Death penalty for drug dealers. Eliminate the root of the problem and don't penalize the victims.
When you want to "nudge" people away from a behavior behavior, you can tax it (monetary / effort / convenience etc). An enormous nudge to prevent dealing would eliminate much of the need to nudge the users, who are an irrational lot anyways.