"Does Prison Pay?" Revisited

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Returning to the Crime Scene

Several years ago, in these pages, we tried to referee an acrimonious debate between criminologists who insisted that prisons "cost too much" and those who responded that they "protect too little." Our contention was that both sides of the debate were stating their positions far too strongly given the lack of available empirical evidence. By presenting new survey data, we hoped to bring a little calm into the storm. But we succeeded only in changing the storm's direction--toward us. Shorn of most of our peacekeeping illusions, we are back to revisit the question, "Does prison pay?"--again by way of new survey data.

Our original offering was a cost-benefit analysis of imprisonment based on a 1990 prisoner self-report survey we conducted in Wisconsin. The survey, based on a sample of 6 percent of the state's prison population, found that in the year before their incarceration, half of the prisoners had committed 12 crimes or more, excluding drug crimes. Using 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 quarter of prisoners, other correctional options, such as probation, intensive drug treatment, or some other programs, might well be even more cost effective than imprisonment and we stressed the need for more research.

What we offer now is a new prisoner self-report survey, one that we conducted in New Jersey in 1993 of a random sample of 4 percent of recent male entrants to the state's prison population. 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 communities into which they might be released. For them, assuredly, prison pays. But prison 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 public and its purse could benefit if 10-25 percent of prisoners were under some other form of correctional supervision or released from custody altogether.

Most Prisoners Are Dangerous, Repeat Criminals

According to Lawrence A. Greenfeld of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, fully 94 percent of all state prisoners have either been convicted of a violent crime or been previously sentenced to probation or incarceration. Greenfeld's 94 percent statistic is unassailable. But even it understates the actual number and severity of crimes committed by state prisoners.

In the first place, adult prisoner profiles do not reflect the crimes committed by prisoners before they were of age to be legally tried, convicted, and sentenced as adults. Most state prisoners have long juvenile records, which are officially closed to adult authorities and are not considered by adult courts at sentencing time. According to our New Jersey survey, two out of three prisoners had served time in a juvenile institution. Other studies have shown that about 60 percent of youths aged 18 and under in long-term secure facilities have a history of violence. Many studies 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 frightening new homicide records in the 1990s.

In a recent survey, 93 percent of judges in the juvenile system agreed that juvenile offenders should be fingerprinted, and 85 percent agreed that juvenile records should be open to adult authorities. As it now stands, however, juvenile crimes of assault, rape, robbery, burglary, and murder will mean nothing in adult courts and will not appear in statistical profiles of prisoners' criminality. …