Prison is often thought of as an important crime deterrent and tool against crime. Prison sentences discourage the bad guys from committing crimes, because they know there is a possible lengthy stay in jail waiting for them if they get caught. Additionally, when individuals are incarcerated they are not out on the streets committing more crimes. The deterrence and lock-up benefits of incarceration are part of what make incarceration such an appealing option for those who wish to be seen as tough on crime in the United States.
But there also seem to be diminishing returns to incarceration, and at a certain point incarceration can begin to be counter productive and even harmful. Specifically thinking about diminishing returns to incarceration in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “once the most violent individuals have been locked up, imprisoning more of them rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.” Each prisoner you lock-up after you have locked up the worst offenders, is marginally less bad. Their crimes, or potential crimes, become marginally less serious, and as a response, the benefit of locking them up is decreased. The crimes they may be deterred from may be less severe to begin with, and the time for which they are incarcerated is doesn’t equate to more serious crimes being avoided, but more marginally less bad crimes being averted.
Pinker continues, “since people tend to get less violent as they get older, keeping men in prison beyond a certain point does little to reduce crime.” We can boast about how long we lock up the bad guys, but if that term extends beyond the point at which that individual may be a threat to society, then it is fair to ask whether their continued punishment is worthwhile. Perhaps an exceptionally long prison sentence, beyond the point at which an individual is likely to still be a threat, is a good deterrent before any crimes are committed, but if it is not, then we use important resources to incarcerate a person who otherwise could be a productive member of society or at least otherwise not drain resources while incarcerated.
The diminishing returns to incarceration are not discussed as much as the idea of tough on crime prison sentences is. We like locking people up, we like having a major deterrent in the form of incarceration, and we like the sense of justice we receive from imprisoning a bad guy for a long time. But we don’t like knowing that our criminal justice system in the United States has more people incarcerated that almost any other country on earth. We don’t like knowing that our prisons are costing society and that individuals released from prison may not have any avenue back into productive society as a result of being locked up for such lengthy times. It is important to consider the diminishing returns to incarceration to determine whether it is truly the best form of punishment to pursue and whether we would be better served by alternatives means of deterring sever crime.