The Uselessness Of Prisons

Peter Moskos, in his provocative In Defense of Flogging, writes about the current prison system:

Some have linked this drop in crime to the increase in prisons. To oversimplify a bit, if more muggers are behind bars for longer periods of time, they can’t mug you as much. Granted, if everybody were in prison, there would be no crime on the street. But this extreme, appealing though it may be for its logical simplicity, fails for several reasons. Between 1947 and 1991 the prison population increased from 259, 000 to 1.2 million. During this time the homicide rate nearly doubled, from 6.1 to 10.5 per hundred thousand. Today the homicide rate is back to where it was in 1947–and yet now we have two million more people behind bars than we did then. Even if prison were responsible for some of the recent crime drop, we’re not getting much bang for the buck.

To understand the uselessness of incarceration–to appreciate just how specious the connection between increased incarceration and decreased crime really is–consider New York City. Not only did New York drastically cut crime, it did so while incarcerating fewer people. New York has seen the most significant crime drop of any big city in America: real, substantial, sustained, and, over the past two decades, twice the national average. In 1990 there were 2,245 murders in New York City. In 2010 there were 532. During this period of decreasing crime–and while the city’s population increased by more than a million people–the number of incarcerated New Yorkers actually¬†decreased by eleven thousand. Less crime should equal fewer prisons. This seems obvious, but it’s not the case int he rest of the nation. Had New York followed national patterns and increased its incarceration rate by 65 percent, the city, with an additional fifty-eight thousand prisoners, may very well have bankrupted the state. To incarcerate that many more people from New York City would cost roughly $2 billion per year, nearly doubling the size and cost of the entire state’s Department of Corrections. [15-17]