My discussion of this important subject will elaborate answers to the following questions:
1) Does imprisonment reduce crime? Yes.
2) Do many crimes cause considerable harm and hardships to victims? Yes.
3) Does America imprison too many people? In light of my answers to 1) and 2) you might expect my answer to this question to be “no”, but it is a strong “yes”.
Imprisonment reduces crimes against the general public if only because of the incapacitation effect; that is, person in prison cannot commit crimes against the public-they can and do commit many crimes against other prisoners. For certain crimes, imprisonment also has a deterrent effect, so that potential offenders are deterred from committing crimes by the prospects of prison terms, especially when the probability of apprehension is not negligible.
This conclusion does not deny that imprisonment raises the likelihood that some prisoners will commit crimes when they are released because their skills at legal employment eroded while in prisons, or they learned in prison how to be better criminals, or they become blacklisted for certain jobs, or for other reasons. Nevertheless, Levitt’s study cited by Posner and other studies find that on balance imprisonment reduces crime. The main disagreement is over whether the whole effect of imprisonment on crimes comes from the incapacitation effect, or whether some is also due to deterrence. I believe deterrence is also at work.
That some crimes cause a large amount of both direct and indirect harm is obvious. In high crime neighborhoods, men, and especially women, are afraid to go out alone at night because of fears about being assaulted. Some men in these neighborhoods carry guns, knives, or other weapons as protection against crimes. Children cannot relax at school because they fear robberies, assaults, and bullying from gang members. Many decisions are made primarily with regard to concern and fears about the likelihood of becoming victims of crime. Economic studies confirm this conclusion since they show that property values are significantly lower when crime in a neighborhood is much larger.
Unquestionably, the decline in crime over time in the US has had a noticeable effect on wellbeing and behavior, especially in large cities that have had high crime rates. Crime was the main topic of discussion aside from intellectual subjects when I moved in 1970 to the Hyde Park neighborhood around the University of Chicago located on the South Side of Chicago. Nowadays residents seldom discuss crime, and people feel a lot freer, although not yet completely free, to walk around when it is dark, or to attend evening seminars.
Since I argued both that imprisonment reduces crime, and many crimes cause immense pain and other costs to victims, readers might expect me to conclude that America does not imprison too many offenders. But I believe just the opposite. For whatever reasons, such as higher school dropout rates or more dysfunctional families, the propensity to commit violent crimes is much greater in America than in Europe or Asia. As a result, it is rational for America to imprison a larger fraction of its population, especially for violent crimes. Unfortunately, American prison policies go beyond this point, and America imprisons far too many men and women for nonviolent crimes.
Imprisonment is the right policy for anyone committing heinous crimes like rape, assaults, robbery at gunpoint, and many other crimes where victims are badly harmed both physically and mentally. Imprisonment is the wrong punishment for crimes without victims, or where other punishments are more effective. The sale of drugs is the prime example of a “victimless” crime for understanding the data on imprisonment. Buyers of drugs for the most part enter into voluntary transactions with sellers. Yet almost one quarter of all persons in US prisons are there on drug-related charges. In addition, studies indicate that many others are there because they committed crimes to finance their expensive drug habits since drug prices are kept artificially high by US drug policy.
Elsewhere I have discuss why the US should decriminalize and legalize drugs (see, for example, my post on 3/20/2005 called “The Failure of the War on Drugs”). If the US were to do that, the prison population would eventually fall by over 30%. The imprisonment of blacks and women would fall by even larger percentages since these groups are more likely to be in prison on drug-related charges. Such a policy change would also release police and other resources that have been used to catch and punish drug dealers to concentrate on crimes where victims suffer great harm. These crimes would then fall, perhaps because more offenders would be caught and imprisoned. The US might still imprison a larger fraction of its population than peer countries, but the differences would become much smaller than at present.
Imprisonment should be rarely used also for other victimless crimes, for crimes that do not greatly harm victims, and for crimes where victims can be adequately compensated by fines and other monetary punishments. In these cases, punishment should consist of fines, probation, and other ways that do not require imprisonment. Eliminating imprisonment for drugs and other victimless crimes,and for many other crimes would cut greatly the US’ bloated prison population,reduce the spending on prisoners, and cut down the depreciation of the market skills of offenders who did not commit serious crimes.