During the halcyon days of “expert”-driven corrections in the 1960s and 1970s, crime was raging. Sentences got longer until, in conjunction with a policing revolution that began in New York City, [Broken Windows Policing] they finally put a lid on crime, ushering in the biggest national crime drop in recorded history.
Further, the costs of prison are comparatively modest, contrary to deincarceration advocates on both the right and the left. The states spent $48.5 billion on corrections in 2010, the last year for which a full breakdown of corrections expenditures is available. Never acknowledged is the fact that more than one-fifth of that amount goes to noninstitutional oversight, such as probation and parole, as well as to training. The amount spent on operating prisons and jails was about $37 billion in 2010. The 2010 budget for the federal Bureau of Prisons was $6.1 billion, bringing total federal and state expenditures on institutional confinement that year to $43 billion. (Groups such as the Koch brothers–supported Coalition for Public Safety regularly claim $80 billion in annual prison spending.) That $43 billion is a small fraction of the $1.9 trillion that the states alone spent in 2010, an outlay dominated by education and welfare payments. In 2011, the states contributed $283 billion to federal means-tested welfare programs like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families cash aid. Los Angeles has proposed a $5.8 billion budget to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, an amount lowballed by several billion. Americans spend $7.4 billion on Halloween, according to the National Retail Federation. By comparison, $43 billion nationally to incapacitate serious offenders seems a bargain.
The costs of uncontrolled crime dwarf $43 billion—or $80 billion. Efforts to estimate those costs inevitably fall short. Immeasurable is the psychological toll of feeling unsafe in your own neighborhood. It is conventional in anti-incarceration circles to dismiss property crime as “nonserious” and an acceptable consequence of lowered law enforcement. But a street experiencing home or car break-ins is under siege, its residents restricted in their freedoms and well-being. Add violence, and the inhibition on lawful civic and commercial activity intensifies. The loss of business-generated wealth and tax revenue in crime-plagued inner-city areas across the country has spurred usually useless government spending to try to jump-start those crime-strangled economies. That spending eclipses prison outlays. The federal Housing and Urban Development agency alone spent $88 billion in 2014 on Community Planning and Development grants to troubled communities.
The one thing prisons do best is incapacitate criminals from committing more crimes. Like all the other arguments for shorter sentences for criminals, the cost of prisons is a bogus argument.