Imprisoning People Doesn't Protect the Public

Robert Perkinson is the author of  "Texas Tough: The Rise of a Prison Empire," a history of American punishment that focuses on the country’s most incarcerated and politically influential state, Texas. His research focuses on how the dynamics of race, politics, crime, and for-profit prisons have intersected to create a uniquely harsh system that seeks to punish rather than rehabilitate prisoners. He is a Soros Justice Fellow and a professor at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
  • Transcript


Question: Why has crime, generally, declined over the past 20 years?

Robert Perkinson: We have seen a historic decline in crime all through the 1990’s.  It has not yet in a very significant way picked up with this recession.  We’ve seen, and this is very important for people to realize, crime rates in some cases drop more steeply in states that have not incarcerated such huge portions of their populations.  One of the steepest declines has been in New York City, which has sent a whole lot of people to jail on Rockefeller drug laws, but nothing like the South.  And yet crime in New York has fallen much more steeply then in Houston or Dallas.  So the crime drop is a great riddle for social scientists to figure out, but critically, at least I think it’s important for people to know that the massive growth of incarceration is, we think, not one of the largest determining factors in decreasing that crime.  Incarceration has been going up straight since the 1970’s.  

In some of the periods incarceration has been going up crime has been going up, other times down.  But there is not a clear correlation between incarceration and protecting the public.  In fact, one of the statistics you would think you would have gotten if you believe in a kind of weak version of deterrence, you would think that all of these harsher penalties would at least deter some of the people who know the criminal justice system best—criminals and former prisoners—from committing crimes.  Because they do become, even if their levels of education attainment are somewhat limited, through being cranked through the criminal justice system, they learn a lot of the criminal law and they know the penalties are very harsh.  So if deterrence were to work and if imprisonment was an effective way to deal with crime, you would think that recidivism rates in the United States would be lower now than they were when the prison boom began, when penalties were comparably more mild.  Instead, the opposite has occurred, recidivism rates have gone up.  One more piece of evidence that shows this experiment in mass incarceration has been one the one hand a total failure in terms of protecting the public.  On the other hand a catastrophe for the weakest members of our... the most vulnerable members of our society, including those who are more victimized by crime.  That’s also in the poor neighborhoods.  It hasn’t helped them in any way.  Their people are getting shipped off to rural prisons and then those rural prisons are getting the census money and so on, and they are still suffering high rates of crime.  So, it’s a mess, I’m afraid.

Question: Is the monetary cost of incarceration less than the cost of crime?

Robert Perkinson: People have tried.  It’s harder to do than people have claimed.  Some economists have said, well even if you are spending $50,000 a year to lock someone up, as is the price in California where the corrections officers are well paid, because that person you are putting behind bars would have committed ‘X’ number of crimes, then you’re actually saving money.  But those studies kind of fall apart for a whole series of reasons.  They’re based on surveys of certain classes of criminals that don’t correlate very well to who is actually in prison.  They don’t take into account the ways that crime can’t just be thought of as a subtraction from the economy.  I mean as strange as it sounds... If I steal $100 from you, that doesn’t decrease the GDP of the United States, that just means that I have $100 to spend and generate economic activity and you don’t.  So, it’s not a subtraction, it’s not a cost to society, it’s a cost to you.  It’s not a cost to society.  

So those studies don’t hold up very well.  I mean, it’s true that I think, you know, that incarceration is not something that we’re going to be able to get rid of entirely.  There are people who are extremely dangerous.  A very small portion, it’s important to realize.  We think that prison beds are filled with dangerous sexual predators and armed robbers and serial killers because that’s how it seems watching the nightly news.  That’s not the case.  Most people going into prison are non-violent offenders in a given year, and most of them are drug offenders, or are hooked on alcohol and so on. 

Recorded April 14, 2010