incarceration as crime reduction


So after reading this post, it would be natural to wonder whether higher incarceration rates decrease crime.

This is a hard question to answer because you can’t just compare worldwide incarceration rates with crime rates, because presumably the incarceration rate responds to the amount of crime as well as affecting it. In other words, one has to control for the violence in a society, and it’s hard to measure the violence of the society independently of its justice system.

It’s possible to get at the question from other theoretical angles though, and this report has some nice points.

Usually, incarceration prevents crime by (1) locking someone up, which prevents him from committing future crimes, and, by (2) deterring crimes by others.

One reason that incarceration has almost no incapacitation effect on those put in jail for drug related crimes, is that the distribution of illegal drugs, being a market-governed activity, is sustained by new recruitment. Put one person in jail and others are hired instead.

Also, this report notes that since criminal careers are often short, long sentences have a weak incapacitation effect.

So, the case for increased incarceration as a crime stopper is probably going to depend on its deterrent effect.


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