The Cost-Effectiveness of Incarceration

I live a happy life being data-driven. Avoiding the pitfalls of being ideologically blind to observed reality is a liberating thing. One policy area where I find few such fellow travelers is in crime and punishment where a passionate divide stands between law and order conservatives that can’t imagine the cost of incarceration exceeding the benefits and woke progressives who too readily assume prisons are filled with victims, not victimizers.

One refreshingly helpful book I recently read on this topic is by law and economics scholar John Pfaff. In Locked In, a professor of law at Fordham University dispels a lot of myths, such as the popular notion that our prisons are filled with nonviolent drug offenders.

He points out that incarceration can actually be relatively inexpensive:

Effective alternatives to incarceration are often more expensive than prisons in terms of dollar expenditures by state and county governments. One unfortunate appeal of prison is its budgetary advantage: warehousing people is cheap, especially when we look at the marginal (as opposed to average) cost—it’s a fairly inexpensive way to keep people from committing crimes against the general public, at least in the short run. More comprehensive cost-benefit analyses would highlight the deeper social costs of incarceration that make it so inefficient, and would make the broader net gains of less punitive alternatives much clearer.

When one thinks of “deeper social costs” perhaps one thinks of the effects on the children of the incarcerated when daddy is locked up. That’s certainly what Pfaff is getting at in the last sentence of the quote above, but don’t assume that it’s always a cost.

The leading peer-reviewed economics journal, American Economic Review has recently published evidence suggesting having a convicted parent locked up can be a benefit to children. Samuel Norris, Matthew Pecenco, and Jeffrey Weaver got their hands on 30 years of high-quality administrative data from Ohio and exploited differing incarceration propensities of randomly assigned judges, providing a natural, randomized control trial to test the effects of parental and sibling incarceration on children. These researchers found incarceration of parents has beneficial effects on the prisoners’ children, like reducing the likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving the environment in which the children grow up. Sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.

Of course, this is but one paper on a narrow research question. If this confirms your worldview, keep in mind that does not necessarily mean every offender should be locked up every time. Criminology is a complicated social science. Yet this research, and its methodologically conclusive randomized controls, should make progressives think twice about assuming locking up criminals is necessarily, on net, bad for the perpetrators’ children.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.