The social (and economic!) benefit of incarceration

I’ve had this tab sitting open on my computer for the past two weeks with the intention of forking over the $5 and reading Steven Levitt’s 1995 paper, The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence From Prison Overcrowding Litigation.  Here’s the a-ha line from the abstract:

For each one-prisoner reduction induced by prison overcrowding litigation, the total number of crimes committed increases by approximately 15 per year. The social benefit from eliminating those 15 crimes is approximately $45,000; the annual per prisoner costs of incarceration are roughly $30,000.

As I pointed out in my recent piece on the California prison guards union, the current annual per prisoner cost in California is about $45,000.  It would be interesting to see a version of Levitt’s study with updated numbers. 

At any rate, this tends to show that though the CCPOA’s motives are bad, some of their goals have some merit.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. 

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at

One Comment

  1. Well now, this is very interesting indeed. Levitt causes a big stir no matter what he does and I’m sure other economists, sociologists, etc. will critique his methodology. But surely it is possible to quantify the costs of incarceration and release. If we give Levitt the benefit of the doubt of being approximately right, then keeping a criminal behind bars is a good economic choice for society as a whole.

    And we could do that as much as we wanted, or at least until we reach a point of unacceptably diminishing marginal returns, if only we would build a sufficient number of prisons or increase the per-prisoner cost enough to meet the minimal standard of not violating the Eighth Amendment while incarcerating them. That involves accepting higher up-front costs of prison construction, and while we can amortize those costs for thirty years through bond financing, that’s becoming very expensive money for California to use.

    Or, we could reduce the marginal cost of releasing prisoners if some way could be found to rehabilitate them. I’m sure the high economic cost of release is powerfully affected by the rate of recidivism; it costs society less to release a rehabilitated convict who will not commit further crimes. Of course, this concept leads us back to the idea of whether altering actual rehabilitation rates is even possible or if the only prisoners who do rehabilitate do so because of self-motivation; the latter view of things is closer to what I suspect is reality.

    I can’t find any really good answers. The least bad answers seem to be a blend of decriminalization of low-impact crimes like recreational drug use and prostitution, increased reliance on community service and other kinds of non-incarcerative punishment for non-violent offenses, and building even more prisons and hiring even more prison guards despite the fact that doing so will feed the parasites sucking the integrity and fiscal vitality out of our political system.

Comments are closed.