Our Prisons Are No Bargain

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Imprisonment is the punishment that fits the crimes of many lawbreakers -- those who are violent and repeat offenders who must be separated from society to keep us safe. But in arguing that prisons are a bargain ["More Prisoners, Less Crime," op-ed, June 22], George F. Will ignored other public safety strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers.

Prisons have helped cut crime. But rigorous studies show that increased imprisonment can claim credit for only 25 percent of the nation's crime drop over the past 15 years. The other 75 percent comes from a wide variety of factors, inside and outside the criminal justice system. Years ago, James Q. Wilson, whom Mr. Will quoted in his op-ed, acknowledged that the nation had probably reached a point of diminishing returns beyond which each additional prison cell would bring less and less benefit in public safety.

The cost of keeping more than one in 100 American adults behind bars is crowding out state funding for other priorities, such as health care, education and long-term crime prevention. State leaders from both major political parties are finding more-effective solutions to advance public safety -- ensuring sufficient space for dangerous offenders while putting low-risk violators in community corrections programs that can reduce recidivism and cut the number of new victims.


Managing Director

Pew Center on the States


© 2008 The Washington Post Company