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.

Joel Upchurch

Why do people think that the guard unions for public prisons don't have an incentive the maximize the prison population? Guards have a big incentive to maintain and increase their customer base.

Marcus Landsberg

You may want to look at HOPE probation in Hawaii. It's doing wonders at keeping non-violent offenders out of prison. Basically, they have to call a hotline everyday, and if the "color" they maintain comes up, they have to come to the courthouse and pee in a cup before a certain time.

Dirty? In jail for a day or two until they see the judge. Clean? Back out until the color comes up again.

It's doing REAL well. There are some issues (especially as far as length of the jail sentences and the procedures to receive those sentences) but my understanding is the effects are off the charts!


Off topic...that cell is the cell that Nelson Mandela slept in on Robben Island!

Bill McGonigle

It's a false premise. Look here:

I compared the incarceration rates of New Hampshire and Switzerland vs. the crime rates. The crime rates are nearly identical, but New Hampshire has more than double the incarceration rate. There are other factors involved (perhaps cultural norms).