Filling Prisons Won’t Cut Crime, Seek Alternatives: new report

By Christopher Zoukis

As the White House observed the week of April 24-30 as National Reentry Week, the president’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) released a new report that claims other law enforcement, economic and social programs would be far more cost-effective ways to battle crime than building more prisons would be.

CEA’s report, titled “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System,” began by noting 2.2 million prisoners are currently incarcerated in federal, state and local facilities, at a total annual cost above $80 billion (points echoing President Obama’s April 23 weekly address on the topic of criminal justice reform).

At an April 25 White House event to publicize the new CEA report, presidential special advisor Valerie Jarrett claimed that the statistics “are very clear” that criminal justice reform will lead to safer communities and a stronger economy.

The event on the new CEA economic report also featured representatives from both the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice and the conservative American Enterprise Institute; each praised the report’s attempt to examine the nation’s mass incarceration through an economic focus.

Outlining the main findings of the 79-page report released that day, CEA chairman Jason Furman first sketched the main trends of incarceration over the past several decades. Since 1980, he noted, the population behind bars had grown by 350%, even though the crime rates had fallen substantially during the same period (the rates for violent crime fell by 39% and for property crime by 52% between 1980 and 2014).

According to the CEA chairman, economic research shows the crime rate decreases may be due to various factors – among them, economic improvements, demographic changes, and improved policing – but the large increase in incarceration was not a likely explanation.

He was equally clear on the cause of prison overcrowding even while the crime rates were falling: changes in criminal justice policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, and longer average time served. The CEA’s report calculated that if admission rates and average time served for state prisons had remained unchanged from 1984 levels, prisoner counts would have fallen by 7%, instead of increasing by 125%.

The report also noted arrest rates, especially on drug charges, have declined more slowly than crime rates, and cited research showing blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, at every stage from searches, arrests, convictions and incarcerations (where they comprise 50% of prisoners, compared with their 30% of the general population).

The CEA presented “back-of-the-envelope” cost-benefit estimates of increased incarceration versus other policy alternatives. Spending another $10 billion on incarceration could reduce crimes somewhere between 1% and 4%, but because of collateral economic losses (such as increased unemployment and poverty) could also reduce net benefits by as much as $8 million and could at most raise net benefits by $1 billion.

In contrast, spending $10 billion on improved policing would cut crime anywhere from 5% to 16% and produce a net benefit to society ranging from $4 billion to $38 billion. Raising the minimum hourly wage rate to $12 by the year 2020 would cut crime 3% to 5% and produce a net benefit ranging from $8 billion to $17 billion.


Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and