Which Costs More: Intervention or Incarceration?

Which Costs More: Intervention or Incarceration?

Which costs more, a simple thimble or a single shingle?

A simple thimble could cost less

than a single shingle would, I guess.

So I think that a single shingle should

cost more than the simple thimble would.

                                             Oh Say Can You Say? Dr. Seuss

Dr. Seuss’s tongue-twister might seem like nonsense, but it’s not. It makes a simple point: if one thing costs less than another thing, then the second thing costs more than the first.

Yeah . . . obvious.

Yet it seems less obvious when we consider some public policies.

Take dealing with criminal behavior.

There are a number of kinds of interventions that we know are (a) less costly than incarceration and (b) are associated with lower recidivism rates among those who participate in the intervention than among those who are incarcerated.

Are they perfect? No.

But are there programs that work, significantly decreasing the likelihood of crime? Absolutely.

A simple intervention could cost less

than a single incarceration would, I guess.

So I think that a single incarceration should

cost more than a simple intervention would.

Yet we seem content to spend more money . . . arguably for less gain.

We’ve heard a lot about the explosion in our prison population, with much of that conversation focusing on minimum mandatory sentences. Much of the talk has been about drug crimes, many of them nonviolent. There’s a reason for that focus: nearly half (48.3%) of today’s federal prison population is in prison for drug offenses. Many (though certainly not all) are not violent criminals and are not guilty of any other type of crime.

It’s a costly way to deal with our concern about drugs. While costs vary with the level of security, figure at least $20,000 per year per prisoner.

That’s more than the annual income of nearly 40% of working Americans.


But that’s not the whole of the story of our preoccupation with incarceration. A recent Associated Press story revealed that there has been a similar explosion in the jail population nationwide.

“U.S. jails now hold nearly 700,000 inmates on any given day, up from 157,000 in 1970,” the AP reported, based on a study conducted by the Vera Institute for Justice. That amounts to more than a quadrupling of the typical daily jail population in forty-five years. During that time period, the U.S. population only has increased slightly more than 55%, and the crime rate actually (since 1991) has gone down.

What’s the annual cost per jail inmate? Over $30,000.

Swift and sure punishment is supposed to deter people from committing crimes, according to some views of criminal behavior. Such an approach assumes that criminals are rational actors making cost/benefit analyses.

Incarceration also removes a criminal from society for a period of time, thereby reducing the number of crimes that individual commits against society . . . at least for that period.

But the troubling reality is that a significant percentage of those who are incarcerated end up being incarcerated again. Florida’s three-year recidivism rate (26.3% for those released in 2009) isn’t bad by national standards (43.3%, compared to 33.7% in Florida, in 2004). Still, that’s one in four.

Another influence on criminal behavior is the individual’s relationships, both interpersonal and to the larger society. Children raised in violent settings learn that violence is normal and acceptable. Adolescents and young adults who run with the wrong crowd learn that crime is a way to achieve status as well as possessions.

Children raised without pro-social role models (adults who go to work, save money, are caring and nurturing toward them and others) never learn that such an approach to life is even possible, let alone desirable. Nor do they learn the skills to achieve such a life.

Finally, adolescents and young adults who do not see a place for themselves in conventional society are likely to reject that society in favor of some alternative that seems more promising to them, or that allows them to give vent to their anger toward the dominant social patterns.

These realities point toward other strategies both for dealing with criminals and for protecting society from crime. Education, mentoring, job training, supportive transitional housing . . . all of these cost considerably less per person than incarceration.

Incarceration costs more and provides only a temporary protection for society. The right interventions cost less and, for significant numbers of offenders, provide permanent protection for society.

The math is simple. Perhaps the politics are not.