Does imprisonment reduce crime? Yes.
Do many crimes cause considerable harm and hardships to victims? Yes.
Does America imprison too many people? In light of my answers so far, you might expect my response to this question to be no. But it is a strong yes.
Imprisonment reduces crimes against the general public, if only because of the incapacitation effect; that is, people in prison cannot commit crimes against the public (they can and do commit many crimes against other prisoners). For certain crimes, imprisonment is also a deterrent, so that potential offenders are kept from committing crimes by the prospects of prison terms, especially when there is a good probability of being caught.
On the other hand, imprisonment also raises the likelihood that some prisoners will commit crimes when they are released because their skills at legal employment eroded while in prisons, or they learned in prison how to be better criminals, or they become blacklisted for certain jobs, or other reasons. Nevertheless, a study on the decline in crime by economist Steven Levitt, along with other research, finds that on balance imprisonment reduces crime. The main disagreement is whether the whole effect of imprisonment on crimes comes from the incapacitation effect or whether some is also due to deterrence. I believe deterrence is also at work.
It is obvious that some crimes cause a lot of both direct and indirect harm. In high-crime neighborhoods, men, and especially women, are afraid to go out alone at night for fear of being assaulted. Some people in these neighborhoods carry guns, knives, or other weapons for protection. Children cannot relax at school because they fear robberies, assaults, and bullying from gang members. Many people make decisions based on their concerns about the likelihood of becoming victims. Economic studies confirm this, showing that property values in a neighborhood are significantly lower when crime is much more prevalent.
Unquestionably, the decline in crime over time has had a noticeable effect on well-being and behavior in the United States, especially in big cities that have had high crime rates. Crime was the main topic of discussion—aside from intellectual subjects—when I moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood around the University of Chicago, on the South Side, in 1970. Nowadays residents seldom discuss crime and people feel a lot freer, although not completely free, to walk around after dark or attend evening seminars.
Since I argued both that imprisonment reduces crime and that many crimes cause immense pain and other costs to victims, how do I conclude that America imprisons too many offenders?
Whatever the reasons—perhaps higher dropout rates or more dysfunctional families—the propensity to commit violent crimes is greater in America than in Europe or Asia. As a result, it is rational for the United States to imprison a larger fraction of its population, especially for violent crimes. Unfortunately, American prison policies go beyond this point, and our justice system imprisons far too many men and women for nonviolent crimes.
Imprisonment is the right punishment for heinous crimes like rape, assault, robbery at gunpoint, and other crimes where victims are badly harmed both physically and mentally. Imprisonment is the wrong punishment for crimes without victims, or where other punishments are more effective. The sale of drugs is the prime example of a “victimless” crime for understanding the data on imprisonment. Buyers of drugs, for the most part, enter into voluntary transactions with sellers. Yet almost one-quarter of the people in U.S. prisons are there for drug-related convictions. Moreover, studies indicate that many people are in prison because they committed crimes to finance their expensive drug habits; prices are kept artificially high by U.S. drug-enforcement policy.
Elsewhere I have given my reasons for why the United States should decriminalize and legalize drugs. If the country were to do so, the prison population would eventually fall by more than 30 percent. The imprisonment of blacks and women would fall by even larger percentages, since members of these groups are more likely to be in prison on drug convictions. Reversing drug policy would also free police and other resources that have been used to catch and punish drug dealers to focus on crimes where victims suffer great harm. These crimes would then fall, perhaps because more offenders would be caught and imprisoned. The United States might still imprison a larger fraction of its population than peer countries, but the differences would diminish.
Imprisonment should rarely be used for other victimless crimes, crimes that do not greatly harm victims, crimes in which victims can be adequately compensated by fines and other monetary punishments, or crimes where probation or other arrangements are more effective. Eliminating prison terms for drugs, other victimless crimes, and many other offenses would greatly ease the bloated prison population, reduce spending on incarceration, and lessen the depreciation of the market skills of offenders who did not commit serious crimes.