Friday, August 24, 2012

How to reduce high incarceration rates

by Ben Vollaard


August 24, 2012

How to reduce incarceration rates without fuelling a crime boom? This column argues that by being more selective over whom to lock up and for how long, scarce public funds can be put to better use.

Incarceration is costly – easily €100 to €200 per night per prisoner, depending on the country and the prison regime. That makes €36,500 to €73,000 per prisoner per year, excluding fixed costs of building prisons, and all other costs such as time not spent at work or with the family.

Given the pressure on government budgets, many states and countries are looking into reductions in prison expenditures. The short-term solution is to reduce the number of prisoners by way of early release. The longer-term solution is to change sentencing policy. This is all easier said than done, however, given public concerns about the effect of lower incarceration rates on crime. Incarceration also provides important benefits to society after all, including deterrence (Durlauf and Nagin 2011) and incapacitation (Owens 2009) of offenders.

We argue that a reduction in the number of inmates taxes these benefits of incarceration the least if it happens selectively. Being more selective in whom to incarcerate for how long puts scarce public resources to their best use.


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