by Rachael Maguire
Intern, University of Chicago Institute of Politics

Since 1980, the number of people in the U.S. who are incarcerated has more than tripled, and today approximately 2.2 million people are behind bars. This sharp rise in incarceration is due to the combination of a dramatic increase in prison admission rates and the compounding effect of longer sentences. The White House report, “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System,” argues that changes to criminal justice policies are responsible for this trend, rather than underlying changes in crime itself. The report also explores economic perspectives on criminal justice reform, examining the relative costs and benefits of different criminal justice policies. It ultimately concludes that investments in police, education, and jobs programs are more cost-effective than increasing sentencing and incarceration rates, and outlines several promising areas for reform, including education, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other youth-focused interventions.

The U.S. incarcerated population has grown rapidly in recent decades, and the U.S. incarceration rate is now the highest in the world, at four times the global average. This has occurred despite the fact that crime rates have fallen sharply (violent crime rates have fallen by 39 percent and property crime rates have fallen by 52 percent since 1980). While this may seem to imply that increased incarceration decreases crime, economic research has found that stricter incarceration is unlikely to be a root cause of the drop in crime; increasing the number or severity of sentences has little to no effect overall on the prevention of criminal activity, particularly among youth. The report cites a paper that found that the threat of a longer sentence does not deter prospective youth from crime, estimating that a 10 percent increase in the average sentence length corresponds to a 0 to 0.5 percent decrease in arrest rates. This impact diminishes as the incarcerated population grows. Further, research repeatedly finds that longer spells of incarceration increase recidivism, especially among youth. A recent study in Chicago found that juvenile detention increases the likelihood of re-offending after release by 22 to 26 percent and reduces the probability of earning a high school degree by 13 percent. Overall, research increasingly suggests that incarceration does little to reduce or deter crime, and may in fact increase recidivism rates and make it more difficult for youth to graduate from high school.

Given that the crime-reducing benefits of incarceration are small, the authors of this report argue that the indirect costs and consequences of incarceration for individuals with criminal records, their families, and their communities, are significant. Minorities disproportionately suffer these consequences, as they are over-represented in the arrest and incarceration population, with total arrest rates for Blacks doubling arrest rates for Whites. Though Blacks and Hispanics represent approximately 30 percent of the population, they comprise over half of those incarcerated. Individuals in prison are also disproportionately poor and have very high rates of mental illness and substance abuse. The cost of incarceration on these individuals and their families is extensive. For example, adults and youth who are incarcerated have a more difficult time finding employment – recent experiments have found that applicants with criminal records were 50 percent less likely to receive an interview or job offer, compared to identical applicants with no record, and these disparities were larger for Black applicants. Overall, those who have been incarcerated earn 10-40 percent less than similar workers who have not been incarcerated. Further, incarceration of a parent increases the probability that a family lives in poverty, and decreases the likelihood of marriage and increases the likelihood of divorce. Younger offenders face lower odds of marriage after being incarcerated. Other costs can include suffering, trauma, and reduced quality of life.

With the goal of mitigating these consequences, the report explores the efficacy of several different criminal justice policies. Overall, it found that public policy can reduce crime by establishing viable and meaningful alternatives to criminal behavior, such as jobs and education. Crime and poverty are correlated, and studies have found that wage increases significantly decrease crime. One study found that a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men results in an approximate 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates, and another study found that raising the minimum wage to $12/hour by 2020 would result in a 3 to 5 percent crime decrease. Therefore, the authors argue that legitimate employment opportunities with sufficient wages will decrease the perceived necessity and attractiveness of criminal activity. To this end, the report advocates for addressing criminal record employment restrictions, including “banning-the-box” and limiting blanket criminal record exclusions.

The report also strongly advocates for targeting youth as a means of crime reduction, especially through education, youth employment, and cognitive behavioral therapy programs. Education interventions can prevent crime by improving future labor market opportunities and by reducing an individual’s chance of engaging in risky behavior. A 2004 study found that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation rate results in a 9 percent decline in criminal arrest rates. Limiting out-of-school suspensions can also reduce involvement with the criminal justice system. Additionally, interventions have been proven to have high impact on child and adolescent crime rates. For example, the authors cite an in-school cognitive behavioral therapy intervention for young men in Chicago that demonstrates that this type of strategy significantly reduces arrests among participants. Finally, youth employment can decrease the arrest rate of youth: a study in New York found that a summer jobs program for disadvantaged youth reduced the probability of incarceration by 10 percent and decreased mortality rates by 20 percent. With this information in mind, the White House Administration has taken several steps to reduce crime rates through youth-focused approaches, including prioritizing expanding access to high-quality preschool, investing in targeted education intervention programs for young adults such as the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, and reworking the 2017 Budget to allocate $334 million for the Justice Department’s Juvenile Justice Programs and $5.5 billion in new investments to connect young people to first jobs. Overall, the report finds that youth education and targeted prevention programs for youth are effective ways to prevent crime and strongly recommends further investment in education, employment, and intervention programs like CBT for youth.

In summary, the dramatically rising incarceration rates in the U.S. are having little effect on reducing crime, and creating negative outcomes for the individuals, families, and communities affected by incarceration. This report adopts an economic perspective on criminal justice reform, examining the costs and benefits of several different criminal justice policies. Ultimately, the authors of the report conclude that investments in police, education, and jobs programs are more cost-effective than increasing sentencing and incarceration rates, and outline several promising areas for reform, particularly focusing on youth education, employment, and intervention programs.