Bebeto Matthews, File, Associated Press
Despite predictions in the 1990s about a predator criminal class preying on upstanding citizens, we have seen notable decreases in crimes across all categories over the last twenty years.

The first question we might ask is, are we safer than we have been? The answer is undeniably yes.

Despite predictions in the 1990s about a predator criminal class preying on upstanding citizens, we have seen notable decreases in crimes across all categories over the last twenty years (homicide has declined from 9.8 to 4.8 per 100,000 persons; violent crime from 787 to 386 per 100,000; and property crime 4930 to 2859 per 100,000).

Despite what we might feel, or believe, we are categorically safer in our persons and homes than we were 20 years ago.

Why is this so? Experts attribute the reduction in crime to a number of factors including demographic trends (fewer young men from poor socio-economic backgrounds), changes to policing and how we supervise offenders (including targeting chronic issues and community oriented efforts), and to incarceration — those in custody don’t commit crime.

What is the specific impact of incarceration on the reduction in crime rates? The answer is surprising: most experts conclude that only 25 percent of the reduction is directly attributable to incarceration.

Yet it might seem that the main goal of stakeholders, the agencies and interest groups directly involved in the justice system, is to incarcerate, as we have been wildly successful doing so.

In 1980, 500,000 persons were in jails and prisons in the US. We now incarcerate over 2.3 million men and women, an increase of over 300 percent. Even with very-recent declines in incarceration rates (attributable mainly to justice reform in large states), 1 out of every 104 persons is in custody, and 1 out of 33 persons is under supervision. We incarcerate 1 out of every 4 persons in custody in the world.

We can draw several important conclusions from this information. First, incarcerating offenders improves public safety but only to a degree, and second, most of the reduction in crime rates and the improvement to public safety is unrelated to putting people in jail.

So if incarceration has only a limited impact on public safety, at what cost do we incarcerate?

Incarceration is expensive. Holding a person in jail or prison costs roughly $80 per day. This compares to $3.50 per offender per day to supervise offenders in the community. Nationally, in 2011 taxpayers spent $52 billion on corrections, an incredible 300 percent increase from the $12 billion spent in 1987.

What is our share of these ballooning costs? In 2008, Utah spent $324 million dollars on corrections, which represents 1 of every 14 tax dollars. Another way of looking at it is for every dollar we spend on higher education, we spend almost 60 cents on jails and prisons.

There are other costs associated with incarceration — costs borne by offenders and their families and communities. One report notes these costs “reverberate across generations.” Over half of offenders have children — 54 percent. Nearly 2.7 million children today have one or both parents in custody, one out of every 28 children. A typical grade school of 400 students may have 14 students with a parent in custody.

Unsurprisingly, having a parent in custody dramatically and negatively affects a child’s well-being. These children have more disciplinary problems and poorer outcomes than their peers.

They are literally poorer, too. An offender earns an average of 40 percent less over a lifetime than otherwise, a figure largely pre-determined by the fact that he/she works an average of nine fewer weeks per year.

The negative impact on children and families persists indefinitely.

What a sad, sobering and revelatory moment when as a prosecutor I realized that the troubled young person before me was the child of an adult offender I had prosecuted earlier in my career.

So, We the People incarcerate offenders very successfully, at some benefit, at great cost, much of which is borne by offenders and their families.

Our preconceptions matter: as a citizen are you content with a system focused on enforcement and punishment that ignores the underlying causes of crime?

We ought to be. We’ve created a system destined to grow, probably beyond our ability to pay.

2 comments on this story

We can predict that 2 percent of a growing population will be entangled in our justice system. Fifty percent of those entangled will return to custody for a new offense or a violation within three years. This creates a violation/recidivism dynamic, which left uninterrupted seems destined to curve upwards indefinitely.

A justice system which relies on incarceration — then returns to custody 50 percent of those released is destined to grow — 100 percent larger? 200 percent? Larger still?

Not necessarily. When in 2009 Salt Lake County officials opened one wing of the dormant Oxbow Jails, their stated purpose was to address issues offenders face that contribute to their decision to commit crime.

That is a different way of doing business.

Henri Sisneros is a criminal lawyer and justice system leader from Salt Lake City, Utah. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he worked as an Assistant United States Attorney and Assistant Federal Defender.