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?

In the last 50 years, American citizens have responded to complications in a very paranoid way. The red scare, the anti drug abuse act of 1986 and the war on terror are some of the most famous fear campaigns the US has lived since the 1950’s. An American citizen today lives in more fright than he would have 50 years ago. Without any actual wars and only one major attack on its land in the last 50 years it seems quite irrational. However, I do not want to discuss America’s irrational fears but rather the consequences of those.

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.

1 comment:

RMills said...

As an American, and specifically as one who lives in higher than average crime neighborhood (and have felt the effects of that personally) I admit that I am afraid of crime and this might color my opinion. Perhaps I am paranoid.
For some reason, I keep thinking that incarcerating criminals, specifically violent ones, is a good idea because it keeps them from committing more crimes out in society. If you look closely at your graphs, incarceration rates have leveled off and begun to decline. Perhaps the two graphs indicate that, over the long term, incarceration works and criminals, especially the repeat offenders that were targeted by the three strikes laws, who are in jail don't commit crimes on the outside.
There are really three separate issues here that can be examined. 1) Recidivism; 2) Violent crime rates (separated from less violent crimes such as drug use and prostitution); and 3) Incarceration rates and crime (especially recidivism and violent crime) before the 1960s when many states loosened their incarceration statutes, resulting in criminals getting shorter sentences. This is really a huge subject that you've tried to tackle in a short post, which is difficult to do, but I suggest finding some more data.
-Rich Mills

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