Mass incarceration is failing to prevent crime, according to the Obama administration — so much so that the president's staff is looking in a few unconventional places for new ideas on public safety.
For example, raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour could prevent as many as half a million crimes annually, according to a new report from the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, a group of economists and researchers charged with providing the president with analysis and advice on economic questions.
Spending an additional $10 billion to expand police forces could reduce crime by as much as 16 percent, they project, preventing 1.5 million crimes a year.
In the report, the CEA argues for a broader analysis of the problems of crime and incarceration, touching on subjects that seem unrelated to criminal justice, such as early childhood education and health care. The authors of the report contend that by helping people get by legally, those other elements of the president's agenda would be more effective in reducing crime than incarceration.
"If we reform our criminal justice system, our communities will be safer, and our economy will be stronger," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, at a conference at the White House on Monday. "The statistics are very clear."
The authors of the report review research on the costs of incarceration as well as the benefits in terms of reducing crime. An inmate in a prison can't commit a crime on the street, and the risk of being imprisoned might deter some from breaking the law.
Criminologists have found, however, that criminals aren't deterred by the prospect of incarceration if they think they won't be caught. The likelihood of being punished is more important to criminals than the punishment's severity. And plenty of inmates aren't habitual criminals. Imprisoning offenders who aren't likely to commit more crimes in the future anyway is an expensive way to keep the public safe.
For these reasons, the authors of the White House's report conclude that mass incarceration just isn't worth the money. Hiring more police officers or investing in public education would do more to reduce crime and create greater monetary benefits for society as a whole, they say.
The authors consider a few ways of reducing crime. They forecast that hiking the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $12 would reduce crime by 3 percent to 5 percent, as fewer people would be forced to turn to illegal activity to make ends meet. By contrast, spending an additional $10 billion on incarceration — a massive increase — would reduce crime by only 1 percent to 4 percent, according to the report.
In the analysis, Obama's staff assumed that increasing the minimum wage to $12 an hour would have a negligible effect on the number of people working, but the minimum wage can, in theory, discourage employers from hiring. Economists are uncertain, for example, whether or not a federal minimum of $15 an hour would put people out of work, and major increases in the minimum could increase crime by making it more difficult for people to find legal employment.
The most effective way to reduce crime would be to spend more money on policing, the report projects. Research consistently shows that departments with more manpower and technology do a better job of protecting the public, and the United States has 35 percent fewer officers relative to the population than do other countries on average.
The conference was one of several efforts this week by the Obama administration to draw attention to the failures of American criminal justice, both in protecting public safety and in helping criminals becoming productive citizens. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch is also asking state policymakers to help recently released federal inmates obtain government-issued identification — which is often necessary to get a job.
"The loss of a productive life for someone who is incarcerated for too long is an incalculable cost at some level," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former economic adviser to President George W. Bush, at the White House on Monday.
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