8 Oct 2014
America's prisoner paranoia increases incarcerations
Jan B writes:*
If one looks at the stats, one will find the vast increase in incarceration rates in the US since 1960. Between 1980 and 2012 the numbers have almost tripled (figure at right). Now, this could all be justified. Perhaps the American society is becoming more corrupt every year, organized crime is increasing and criminal offenses are more common. However, the crime rates indicate differently. They have decreased 45% since 1990 (figure below). Then, where is this all coming from?
Governments respond to public fear in various ways. One is certainly the prosecution and incarceration of those who might be practicing that which induces the fear. Those who many call criminals, I would call “fear inflictors." For example, a government might want to convict those people using drugs if the population is very scared of the effect of drugs on society. People are scared, and they want “fear inflictors” locked-up for as long as possible to protect society.
The problem is that fear is creating a dangerous demand. People are scared of drugs, gangs and terrorists. To reduce this fear and increase their well-being, citizens will demand action by the government. The easiest way for the government to satisfy those needs is arresting “criminals”. All these small criminals end up in prison. So really, all the government is doing is producing a supply (of prisoners) that satisfies the demand of the American people for convictions. This is arguably fabricated by the government and promoted by the media but is still up to the people to change.
There are many negative externalities to having an overbooked penitentiary system. One very vivid debate is the penitentiary expenditure vs the education budget. Others include private prisons arising in states such as California. All these problems are often blamed on the government and a solution is demanded. What people do not realize is that their attitude -- demanding immediate action for temporary satisfaction -- is actually creating the problem.
Bottom Line: The high incarceration rate in the US is a government produced supply in response to a high demand urged by the American people.
* Please comment on these posts from my microeconomics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.