United States. Congress. House. Committee on the J.

Taking Back Our Streets Act of 1995 : hearings before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, first session, on H.R. 3 ... January 19 and 20, 1995 online

. (page 45 of 51)
Online LibraryUnited States. Congress. House. Committee on the JTaking Back Our Streets Act of 1995 : hearings before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, first session, on H.R. 3 ... January 19 and 20, 1995 → online text (page 45 of 51)
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^^ the debate were staang their posioons far too scrongiy given the lack of avail-

^^L able empirical evidence. By presenting new survey data, we hoped to bring a
^^k lictle calm into the storm. But we succeeded only in changing the storm's di-
^B recnon — toward us. Shotn of most of our peacekeeping illusions, we are back
^1 to revisit the quesaon, "Does prison pay?" — again by way of new survey dao-
^^^m Our origuial offering was a cost-benefit analysis of impnsonmenr based on
^^^ a 1990 prisoner self-report survey we conducted in Wisconsin. The survey,
based on a sample of 6 percent of the sate's prison populadon. found that in the year
before their incarceradon, half of the prisoners had committed 12 crimes or more, ex-
cluding drug crimes. Usmg the best available estimates of prison operating costs and the
social costs of crime, we calculated that imprisoning 100 convicted felons who offended
at the median rate cost $2.5 million, but that leaving them on the streets cost $4.6 million.
We noted that for as much as a quaner of prisoners, other correcQonal opaons. such as
probaaon. intensive drug treatment, or some other programs, might well be even more
cost effective than imptisonment and we stressed the need for more research.

What we offer now is a new prisoner self-repon survey, one that we conducted in
New Jersey m 1993 of a random sample of 4 percent of recent male entrants to the sate's
prison populaQon. Analysis of this survey reconfirms our earlier finding: prison pays for
most state prisoners. Most state prisoners are either violent or repeat offenders who pose
a real and present danger to the physical safety or property of any commumoes into
which they might be released. For them, assuredly, prison pays. But ptison does not pay
for all prisoners. It does not pay for all convicted felons. Most emphatically, it does not
pay .for all convicted drug felons. The pubhc and its purse could benefit if 10-25 percent
of prisoners were under some other form of correctional supervision or released from
custody altogether.

Anne Morrison PiM u assisura professor of public policy at :ht Ktnntdy School of Coyrrnmntl. Harvard
L'nmnuy John]. Diluliojr.. is professor of policies and public affairs at Princeton University and director
iiftlie Brookings Center for Public Management. Piehl and Dilulio are among the contributors to a new
Brooiunis project. Vie Sew Consensus on Cnme Policy, headed by Dilulio and Joan R Pelersilia. of the
L'luversity of California at Irvine. This article is a follow-up on one Piehl and Dilulio wrote for iJiefall
1991 issui of The Broobngs Revieiv, entitled, "Does Prison Pay?"

WINTei^ 1995


Most Prisoners Are Dangerous, Repeat Criminals

According to Lawrence A. Greenfeld of the U.S. Bu-
reau of Justice Scarisdcs, fully 94 percent of all state
prisoners have either been convicted of a violent crime
or been previously sentenced to probadon or incarcer-
aaon (see figure 1). Greenfeld's 94 percent statistic is
unassailable. But even it understates the actual number
and seventy of crimes committed by state prisoners.

In the first place, adult prisoner profiles do not
reflect the crimes committed by pnsonet? before they
were of age to be legally tned, convicted, and sen-
tenced as adults. Most state prisoners have long juve-
nile records, which are offiaally closed to adult au-
thorities and are not considered by adult courts at
sentencing time. According to our New Jersey survey,
two out of three pnsonen had served time in a juve-
nile institution. Other studies have shown that about
60 percent of youths aged 18 and under in long-term
secure &cilices have a history of violence. Many stud-
ies reveal that between a quarter and a third of juvenile
criminals are high-rate offenders who commit a mix of
violent and property crimes. Juveniles account for
about a fifth of all weapons arrests and have set fright-
ening new homicide records in the 1990s.

In a recent survey, 93 percent of judges in the ju-
venile system agreed chat juvenile offenders should be
fingerpnnced. and 85 percent agreed that juvenile
records should be open to adult authorities. As it now
stands, however, juvenile crimes of assault, rape, rob-
bery, burglary, and murder will mean nothing m advilt
courts and will not appear in suostical profiles of pris-
oners' criminaliry.

Second, more than 90 percent of all criminal cases
do not go to trial because the offender pleads guilty to
a lesser charge. Even violent crimes are routmely plea-
bargained — an estimated 77 percent of rape cases, 85
percent of aggravated assault cases, and 87 percent of
robbery cases. Unless one believes that all charges that
are plea-bargained away are for crimes that the offen-
der did not commit, then one must admit that actual
crimes are swept under the criminal-records rug by
plea bargaining. As yet no systemanc empirical studies
have estimated the defladonary effects of plea bargain-
ing on the length and severity of pnsonen' criminal
records. But many prosecutors believe that the effects
are large, and evidence is growing all around the
country that they are right.

Third, as our two prisoner self-repon surveys
plainly reveal, most prisoners comimt many times
more nondrug felony crimes than they are ever ar-
rested, convicted, and imprisoned for committing.

In the late 1970s the RAND Corporation con-
ducted prisoner self-report surveys in Texas. Michigan,
and Califomia. Among other things, RAND's survey:
showed that the median number of crimes, excluding
all drug crimes, committed by prisoners the year before
they were incarcerated was 15. In the late 1980s amidst
the first round of controvenies over benefit-cost anal-
yses of imprisonment, some asserted that the RAND
numbers could not even come close to being replicated
in bigger-sample, more up-to-date surveys.

Both our prisoner self-report surveys were modeled
on die RAND survey, though in both the sample was

much larger. The 1993 New Jersey survey fbund that the
median number of nondrug crimes committed by pris-
oners the year before their imprisonment was 12 — ex-
acdy what it was for Wisconsin prisoners in 1990, and
three lower than it was for prisoners in RAND surveys.

Although the exact replication is strikmg, fiiture
surveys will no doubt show chat 12 is not a magic
number. Buc senous analysts must now concede that
there is less reason to be skeptical that the typical pris-
oner commies many undecected crimes, excluding
drug crimes, the year before his incarceration.

In sum, che Greenfeld data alone are enough to re-
but the notion that most state prisoners are petty, first-
time, or mere drug offenders with few prior arrests, no
previous convictions, no history of violence, and no
potential for doing cnminal harm if released tomorrow
morning. And when we acknowledge that most pris-
oners commit crimes as juveniles, most prisoners plea
bargain away cnmes chey have committed as adults,
and most prisoners have committed a slew of unde-
tected cnmes the year before cheir incarceraaon, that
notion is not only decidedly distorted but downright
dangerous. It is a mvTh chat anti-incarcerarion activists
and cheir allies should be free to peddle, buc that no re-
sponsible policymaker, prosecutor, judge, journalist,
academic, or average cinzen can afford to buv.

Calculating Social Costs

Estimating che social costs and benefits of competing
transporcanon or environmental policies is no analyncal
picnic. Buc estimating them for imprisonmenc and other
sentencing options is a certain analytical migraine.

For staners, it is widely asserted that it costs 325,000
CO keep a prisoner behind bars for a year. Buc the latest
Bureau of Justice Statistics figures for average armual
spending per pnsoner are $15386 for the states and
$14,456 for the federal Bureau of Prisons (which holds
about 10 percent of all prisoners). These figures are
calculated by dividing the total spent on salaries,
wages, supplies, utilities, transportation, contractual
services, and other current operatmg expenses by the
average daily inmate population.

Buc hidden and indirect costs of running prisons
might bring the S25.000 figure closer to reality than
the official spending averages would allow. For exam-
ple, some tmy but nontrivial fraction of government
workers oucside of corrections (human services, central
budgeting offices) spend time on nuners pertainmg to
pnsonen. And Harvard economist Bachard Freeman
and others suggest that incarceration decreases post-re-
lease employabihty and lifetime earnings potential.
Thus an ideal estimate of the social costs of imprison-
ment would include any relevant spending by other
government agencies, plus whatever public unem-
ployment compensation, welfire, and health expendi-
tures result from the negative short- and long-term la-
bor market effects of imprisonment on ex-prisoners.

Also, there is wide inter- and intra-system variation
not only in what it costs to operate prisons, buc in how
prison doUan are allocaced as between security fiinc-
tions (uniformed custodial stafi), basic services (food,
heat, medical supplies), treatment programs, recre-
ational Polities, plant maintenance, and other expen-



dicures. Whatever the best estimate of prison operating
coso. such cost differences suggest that efficiency losses
arc occumng in some pbces and that efficiency gains
arc possible m others.

The cost-effectiveness of prisons, however, is by no
means strictly detenmned by correctional administrators.
Over the past 25 years the courts have had a major im-
paa on both the total costs of operating prisons and the
distribuQon of prison dollars between secunty and other
needs. For example, in the wake of a sweeping court or-
der, pnson operating costs m Texas grew from S91 mil- -^ ^
lion in 1980 to S1.84 billion in 1994. a tenfold increase f^^. ,
in real terms, while the state's prison population barely
doubled. Texas is now one of at least 20 states that
spends less than half of every prison dollar on security.

Finally, it is worth remembering that barely a
penny of every federal, state, and local tax dollar goes
to support state prisons and local jails. State and local
governments spend 15 times what the federal govern-
ment spends on corrections. But state and local spend-
ing on pnsons and jails amounts to only S80.20 per
capita a year, or $1.54 per capita a week.

Estimating Social Benefits

Whatever the best esnmate of how much it costs so-
ciety to keep a convicted criminal behind bars for a
year, how do we decide whether it's worth the
money? Imprisonment offers at least four types of so-
aal benefits. The first is retribuaon: imprisomng Peter
punishes him and expresses society's desire to do jus-
Dce. Second is deterrence: impnsomng Peter may de-
ter either him or Paul or both from commitnng crimes
in the fijture. Third is rehabilitation: while behind
bars, Peter may participate in drug treatment or other
programs that reduce the chances that he will return to
cnme when free. Fourth is incapacitation: from his
cell, Peter can't commit crimes against anyone save
other prisoners, staff, or visitors.

At present, it is harder to measure the retnbution.
deterrence, or rehabilitation value of imprisonment to
soaety than it is to measure its incapacicauon value. The
types of opimon surveys and data sets that would enable
one to arrive at meamngfuJ estimates of the first three
social benefits of imprisonment simply do not yet exist.

Thus, we focus exclusively on the soaaJ benefits of
impnsonment measured in terms of its incapacitation
value. As columnist Ben Wanenberg so vividly put it,
everyone grasps that "A thug in pnson can't shoot
your sister." Thus, if a given cnme costs its victims and
society X dollars in economic and other losses (hospi-
tal bills, days out of work, physical pain, and emooonal
anguish), and if we know that, when free, a convicted
criminal commits Y such cnmes per year, then the
yearly social benefits of imprisoning him are equal to
X rimes Y. If we accept that it costs 525,000 to im-
prison this convicted criminal for a year, then the
benefit-cost rario of impnsomng him is equal to the
product of X times Y divided by $25,000. If the ratio
is greater than 1, then the social benefits exceed the
costs and "prison pays" for this offender, but if the ra-
tio is lower than 1, then the social costs exceed the
benefits and it does not pay to keep him locked up.

But remember; we arc monetizing the social

Figure I. Profile of Prison Inmates, I99t


Source note: Lawrence A. Greenfeld, Survey of State Pnson Inmatet '99' (Bureau of Justice Slatistia)
Statistics based on a sample representing 71 1.CXX} aduKs in state pnsons.

benefits solely in terms of impnsonment's incapacita-
tion value. Because there is every reason to suppose
that the retribudon. deteirence, and rehabihtation val-
ues of impnsonment are each greater than zero — that
is, because it is virtually certain that in addiaon to in-
capacitaring cnminals who would comnut cnmes
when free, pnson also succeeds in punishing, deter-
ring, and rehabiliuring at least some pnsonen under
some conditions — our esrimate of the net social
benefits of impnsonment is bound to be an underesxi-
mate. And if, therefore, our estimate measured only in
terms of pnson's incapacitation value is positive, it
means that the actual social benefits of impnsonment
are even higher and that pnson most defimtely pays.

Several recent advances have been made in measur-
ing the costs of cnme to victims and society. For ex-
ample, a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study re-
ports a total of 33.6 million cnrmnal victimizations in
1992. The study esrimated that m 1992 cnme victims
lost $17.2 bilhon in direct costs — losses from theft or
property damage, cash losses, medical expenses, and
lost pay from work.

But the BJS estmuie did not include direct costs (for
example, medical costs) to victims mcurred slx months
or more after the cnme. Nor did it include decreased
work productivity, the less tangible costs of pain and
suffering, increased insurance premiums and moving
costs due to vicomizadon, and other indirect costs.

A 1993 study by Ted R. Miller and others m Health
Affairs took a more comprehensive view of the direct
coso of cnme and included some mdirect costs as well.


The study estimated the costs and mooetaiy value of
lost quality of life in 1987 due to death and injuries,
both physical and psychological, resulting from violent
crime. Using various measures, the study estimated
chat each murder costs SZ4 million, each rape 560,000,
each anon SSO,000, each assault $25,000, and each rob-
bery $19,000. The estimated total cost over the life-
time of the victims of all violent crimes committed
during 1987-90 was S178 billion per year, or many
times the BJS estimate of direct econotmc costs.

Even these estimates, however, omit the detailed
cost accounang of site-specific, crime-specific studies.
For example, a recent survey of admissions co Wiscon-
sin hospitals over a 41-month period found that 1,035
panents were admitted for gunshot wounds caused by
assaults. These parients accumulated more than $16
million in hospital bills, about S6.8 million of it paid by
taxes. Long-term costs nse tar higher. For example,
just one shotgun assault victim in the survey was likely
to incur costs of more than S5 million in lost income
and medical e.-cpenses over the next 35 years.

Likewise, several studies have estimated the number
of crimes averted by mcapacitaang cnmmals. For ex-
ample, BJS stansacian Patnck J. Langan has shown that
m 1989 in estimated 66,000 fewer rapes. 323.000 fewer
robberies. 380.000 fewer assaults, and 33 milhon fewer
burglaries were attnbutable to the difference between
the dime races of 1973 and those of 1989. As Langan
has observed, if only one-half or one-quarter of the re-
ductions were due to rising incarceration rates, that
would still leave prisons responsible for sizable reduc-
aons in crime. Also he has csdmaced chac cnpling che
pnson population from 1975 to 1989 reduced reported
and unreported violent crime by 10—15 percent below
what It would otherwise have been, thereby prevent-
ing a conservatively estimated 390.000 murden, rapes,
robberies, and aggravated assaults in 1989 alone.

Results of the New Jersey Study

What can the New Jetsey prisoner self-report survey
contribute to a cost-benefit analysis of imprisonment?
Table 1, adapted from Mark A. Cohen's analysis of
jury awards to crime victims, liscs our estimates of the
social costs of rape, robbery, assault, burglary, auto
theft, and petty theft. For each offender in the New
Jersey sample we multiplied these amounts by che an-
nualized number of offenses reponed of each type.
Table 2 ranks the resulting social costs of crime for the
sample. The median social cost of crime was about
$70,098. In other words, half of the prisoners in the
sample inflicted more costs on society and half less
than $70,098. The social cost associated with che pris-
oner in che 25 th percentile (that is, 75 percent of the
sample inflicted higher social costs than he did) was
about $19j09. and at the 10th percentile it was $1,650.

Table 3 converts the figures in table 2 to benefit-cost
rados by dividing the social benefits by $25,000. the cost
of imprisoning one prisoner for one year. Dividing che
median social cost per crime of $70,098 by $25,000
yields a benefit-cost rado of Z80: for every dollar it costs
to keep a median-offending prisoner behind bars society
saves at least $280 m the social costs of crimes averted

The prisoner at the 25th percendle was essendally

a high-rate property offender, reporting that he com- '
miaed auto thefb at a rate of three a year, burglaries
at a rate of six a year, and petty thefts at a rate of 24 a
year. Dividing the total social cost of these crimes by
the cost of incarceradon yields a benefit-cost rado of
0.78. And at che 10th percentile, che rado is a cleariy
cosc-ineffecdve zero.

Just Say No to No Parole

Clearly, che social benefits of incapadcadng criminals,
however great diey may be, are nonetheless subject to
che law of diminishing returns.

Make no miscake: wichin diree years of dieir com-
munity-based sentences about half of all probadoners
either abscond or are returned to prison for a new
crime, while roughly half of all parolees are convicted
of a new crime. Of the 5 million people under correc-
donal supervision in this country at any given time, 72
percent are not incarcerated. Even violent offenders
serve barely 40 percent of dieir sentences in confine-
ment. Each year community-based felons commit
millions or'cnmes, many violent, that could have been
prevented if they had been imprisoned for all or most
of their terms.

But efforts, in Virginia and elsewhere, to abolish
parole are too tough by half For while about half of
all parolees recidivate, the other half do not. Nadon-
aily, each year we spend more than 7.5 times more on
prisons and jails (which house 28 percent of offenders)
than we do on probanon and parole (which account
for the remaining 72 percent) combined. Thus we
spend more than 20 times as much to hold each pris-
oner as we do to supervise each community-based
offender. No doubt a large fracdon of the parole pop-
uiadon should be imprisoned But a no-parole policy
lowers rather than increases the chances that the sys-
tem will son offenders cost-effecrively.

This is especially true where drug offenders are con-
cerned. Between 1980 and 1992 the fiacdon of new
state prisoners whose most serious convicdon offense
was a drug offense rose from 6.8 percent to 305 per-
cent. Does that mean that one-third of the pnson pop-
uladon consists of "mere drug offenders"' By no
means. The vast majority of this group are recidivists
with many a nondrug felony on their rap sheets, to say
noching of juvenile crimes, crimes chey plea-bargained
away, and crimes chey got away with completely.

Then what fracdon of prisonen might be accu-
rately characterized as "drug-only offenders," meaning
offenders whose only adult crimes have been drug
crimes? At this point we have no way of knowdng. But
about 27 percent of the New Jersey sample reported
that in the four months before incarceradon their only
offenses were drug sales. Neariy a quarter said chey first
goc involved in cnine to get money for drugs. And 3
percent were convicted of drug possession and re-
ported no other crimes.

To be consistent methodologically, we muse con-
sider che incapacitadon benefits of incarcerating such
a substandal populadon. Doing so dramadcally
changes the results and the implicadons of our analysis.
We believe dut the best estimate of che incapacicadon
effecc (number of drug sales prevented by incarcerat-



ing a drug dealer) ii zero, and therefore value drug
crimes (sales and possession) at zero social cost. Other
analyse including many whom ao one can accuse of
being soft on drug crime or in &vor of drug legaliza-
tion, have reached similar conclusions. For example,
in a recent issue of Ctfmmfnwry, James Q. Wilson ob-
served chat pmon terms for crack dealers "do not have
the same mcapacitaove effect as sentences for robbery.
... [A] drug dealer sent away is replaced by a new one
because an opportunity has opened up." Many law en-
forcement and corrections officials have reached the
same conclusion.

As cable 4 shows, mcluding drug offenders in our
analysis lowen the cost-effecnvencss of incarceration
across che board: even at the median, impcisonment
appears to be very expensive. If even half of che in-
mates who report that their only cnme was selling
drugs are teUing che truth, then 15 percent of New
Jersey's spending on prisons is being devoted to "send-
ing a message" about drug deahng. We ire open to
convincing evidence that the public is wiUing to pay
subsunaal sums for recribuaon against drug dealers.
And we ire aware chat certain types of pnson-based
drug treatment programs can work to reduce the
chances that an otfcnder will return to drugs or cnme
upon release. But let no one suppose chat by mcarcer-
aang most drug offenders we succeed in ivertmg lots
of drug crimes. If there is in empincally sound argu-
ment for a no-parole policy that makes no disanctions
between drug-only offenders and other prisoners, we
have yet to hear ic.

Forging a New Consensus?

When we firsc ventured mto the "Does prison pay?"
debate, we were struck by che absence of empirical
data to buttress che large claims being made on both
sides. Now more chan ever we are convinced chat che
path to a new intellectual consensus in this area, as in
crime pohcy generally, can be paved not by disagree-
ing more amicably about the implications of what is
already known (though that could be i pleasant
change), but by agreeing more fiilly ibout the gaps in
our Imowledge and how best to fill them.

For example, many want drug-only offenders
locked up regardless of the quesnonable incapadcation
or general deterrence benefits of doing so. Likewise,
others want to legalize drugs outright. But honest
minds on both sides must adrmt chat we do not yet
have a definitive estimate of the fraction of che ptison
population that consisc of drug-only offenders.

Litde by litde analysts are beginning to sketch a pic-
ture of the amount and severity of crimes comimtted
by prisoners when free and to explain che conditions
under which some community-based felons succeed
in staying drug- and crime-free. But we need a much
fiiller picture, a much dearer explarudon.

In short, a new intellectual consensus on crime
policy can be built not by avoiding the hardest policy-
relevant empirical questions, but by attempting co
ideniiiy and answer them, preferably in common with
chose with whom we are now most inclined to dis-
agree strongly. Through a new Brookings research
project, we hope to help foster just such a consensus."

Table I. Estimates of Social Costs of Selected Crimes










Auto thelt


Fraud, forgery, petty theft


Soorce: Mart Cohen. "Pain. Suffenng. a
ami Sooely Rev.fw. vol. 21 no 3 (1988),

J lury AwanSK A Study of a .e Con of Cnme :o ^
J adiusted for inflation and transfer of wea)t^ by t

Table 2. Social Costs of Property and Assault Crimes
by New Jersey inmates

Average (mean)

25th percentile
1 0th percentile

Online LibraryUnited States. Congress. House. Committee on the JTaking Back Our Streets Act of 1995 : hearings before the Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, One Hundred Fourth Congress, first session, on H.R. 3 ... January 19 and 20, 1995 → online text (page 45 of 51)