Diminishing Returns to Incarceration

Diminishing Returns to Incarceration

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.
Evidence of Structural Racism

Evidence of Structural Racism

What is and what is not racism in America today is a difficult question. We easily denounce racial slurs and instances of racism where someone openly states they dislike people due to race, but we have trouble identifying racism that is not so explicit. We have trouble identifying structural and systemic racism, but we know that it exists and that it has real world consequences for black people in our country. A couple of weeks ago, in a post on his blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen noted that racial segregation is increasing in many parts of America. White people choosing not to live near black people can be explained in many innocuous ways, but ultimately we must accept, the statistics of racial segregation reveal a system of structural racism in our country.
In the book Evicted, author Matthew Desmond confronts structural racism directly. He writes, “In Milwaukee’s poorest black neighborhoods, eviction had become commonplace – especially for women. In those neighborhoods, 1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants.” Eviction is a downstream consequence of structural racism. Structural racism can appear rational and equitable on the surface, but it often is built upon decades of deeply racist policies. When a population has been consistently held back due to racist policies, then racially neutral policies will still produce racist outcomes years after the deliberately racist policies have been removed. I think that Desmond would agree that this is what is at the heart of the racial disparities in evictions in Milwaukee and across the country.
Desmond continues, “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” Black men have been arrested at rates that don’t match their likelihood to use drugs or commit crime relative to white men and this has often meant that black mothers had less support for raising children and providing housing, food, and basic needs for families. This is part of why black women in Milwaukee are evicted at rates beyond their proportion of city residents. While we cannot look at any single incident and determine that racism is the cause of why a man was arrested or a woman evicted, we can look at the overwhelming evidence of segregation and disparate policing and evictions to see that structural racism is defining the lives of poor black men and women. We can see the evidence of structural racism and know that it is shaping lives and worlds that white and black people in our country experience. We cannot always say that a single instance is the outcome of racism, but we still know it is shaping what is happening.
After I wrote this piece Cowen also wrote about attractiveness, citing a David Brooks column. The column itself cites a study showing that the attractiveness bias in the United States is especially punishing to black women, demonstrating additional barriers that black women can face due to structural racism that creates beauty standards that outcasts poor black women. More evicdence of structural racism.

Segregation of Trust and Opportunity

“Very often the United States deals with its problems by sending them away to a different part of the country or a different part of town or, saddest of all, by sending them to jail,” writes Tyler Cowen in The Complacent Class. Cowen addresses our problems of segregation and incarceration in his book and looks at the strange reality in the United States where we have several booming metropolitan economies across the country and regions with high trust, cooperation, and philanthropy, but nevertheless we lead the world in the number of people incarcerated. Cowen sees our incarceration problem and this split between productivity and apparent moral/social failure as a consequence of American complacency in our modern age.


He writes, “Alexis de Tocqueville originally visited the United States to study its prison system, noting that [i]n no country is criminal justice administered with more mildness than in the United States. That has not been the case for some time.” We arrest a large number of people, many of whom have had high exposures to lead, have mental illnesses that have not been diagnosed, or have been implicated in implicit bias. Rather than confronting difficult realities and striving to improve society for those of us who are the worst off, there are some senses in which we have chosen to jail those of us who fall short rather than striving toward a better society.


“Cooperation is very often furthered by segregating those who do not fit in. That creates some superclusters of cooperation among the quality cooperators and a fair amount of chaos and dysfunctionality elsewhere.”


Complacency is taking the challenges and the hard parts of life and society and putting them in a box. We take the people who have failed, those who were not brought along through progress and development (often due to explicit exclusion), and set them aside. We physically locate them in prisons, run away from them to suburbs, or push them out of the downtown spaces we want to revitalize. Rather than working with these individuals and figuring out how we can help them connect with our globalized economy to find a way to be productive and engaged in the world, we shut them out and ignore them.


Cowen complains that we have lost a sense of betterment. We don’t believe we can solve big problems anymore, and instead of trying, we burrow into our own niches and push aside those who don’t fit with the narrow vision we want to realize. To get beyond this complacency requires inclusionary thinking that asks big questions about making the world better for everyone as opposed to just making ourselves better. Complacency segregates and ignores while the ambition we need to jump-start productivity acknowledges, innovates, and includes.

Inflated Districts

Michelle Alexander looks at specific policies that have lead to greater incarceration rates in our nation and have exacerbated racial injustice in her book The New Jim Crow. One of the policies Alexander criticizes is the policy surrounding political representation of incarcerated individuals. After Alexander addresses the reality that our nation locks up minority black and brown men at rates far higher than white men, she addresses questions of voting and districting. Below, Alexander explains how incarcerated individuals are counted by the Census Bureau,

“Under the usual-residence rule, the Census Bureau counts imprisoned individuals as residents of the jurisdiction in which they are incarcerated. Because most new prison construction occurs in predominately white, rural areas, white communities benefit from inflated population totals at the expense of the urban, overwhelmingly minority communities from which the prisoners come. This has enormous consequences for the redistricting process. White rural communities that house prisons wind up with more people in state legislatures representing them, while poor communities of color lose representatives because it appears their population has declined. This policy is disturbingly reminiscent of the three-fifths clause in the original Constitution, which enhanced the political clout of slaveholding states by including 60% of slaves in the population base for calculating Congressional seats and electoral votes, even though they could not vote.”

The presidential election of 2016 showed a powerful split in political preferences between rural and urban parts of the country. Metropolitan areas heavily favored the Democratic candidate, Hilary Clinton, and rural areas overwhelmingly favored Donald Trump from the Republican party. Diving deeper into state politics and representation, we see the same phenomenon play out with state representatives. In my home state of Nevada, the two major population centers, the Las Vegas metropolitan statistical area (MSA) and the Reno MSA, vote democratic while the rural parts of the state vote republican. What the policy that Alexander discusses means is that the MSAs in my state end up loosing seats relative to the rural districts and counties because of the way we count individuals. While Nevada may be dominated by the two million Las Vegas MSA inhabitants and the half million Reno MSA inhabitants, the state likely does see a shift in political representation away from the urban centers toward the rural counties that house the state’s prisons.

It is unlikely that the rural representatives of those prisons favor policies that help improve the neighborhoods and living conditions in the urban communities our prisoners come from. Disturbingly, it is unlikely that our rural representatives favor a reduction in incarceration rates at all since their constituents likely rely on the prison for employment.

It is hard to determine residence and people in prison may be homeless, but nevertheless, we do have the ability today to better analyze and record where our individuals lived prior to being arrested and where they plan to return once released. How we choose count individuals who have short sentences versus life sentences is further in the weeds of the issue, but can be impactful when considering prison populations and the communities that house such prisons. Our nation’s constitution checks urban power by over-representing rural communities in congress, and many state constitutions follow the same suit. Emphasizing this distinction however, and providing greater clout to rural districts that house prisons may encourage a backlash against anti-incarceration movements and may make it less likely that the poor and over policied communities from which our prison population derives, is represented and able to advocate for changes that will improve their lives.

The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Societal Expectations and Outcomes

It seems to me that a great deal of human outcomes are shaped by society in ways that are not always clear or obvious. Beyond arguments of nature versus nurture, our daily actions seem to be limited, encouraged, prevented, or otherwise influenced by our society and culture. What society tells us is desirable and acceptable makes a diffence in what we want and what we can do, and at the same time social stigmas and taboos keep us from behaving in certain ways. This is important to think about when we look at racial minorities in this country, the way that our society treats those groups, and the outcomes those groups experience. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander addresses this idea and looks at how society has, over time, reinforced the idea that black men and women are dangerous, less worthy of social assistance, and culturally flawed in ways that prevent them from achieving success.

In the United States, our society is comfortable talking about how bad criminals are, and about how sever punishment for criminals should be. What gets mixed up in this discussion however, are ideas of race. We police and arrest black communities and individuals at much higher rates than white communities and individuals, and then we place severe social stigmas against people who have been incarcerated. Once an individual has been let out of prison, they return to a society that is unwelcoming, will not employ them, does not offer them housing assistance, and rewards those who denigrate the formerly incarcerated. In her book, Alexander shares a quote from Frederick Douglas that demonstrates how this approach is counter productive for reducing crime and changing behavior, which is often described as the main goal of the criminal justice system.

“In Frederick Douglass’s words, “Men are so constituted that they derive their conviction of their own possibilities largely from the estimate formed of them by others. If nothing is expected of a people, that people will find it difficult to contradict that expectation.” A society that sets low expectations for black people, arrests them at unreasonably high levels, calls them criminals, and reduces black culture will produce more black people who fit the description and expectations that society has created. When we do not create environments that encourage everyone to succeed and demonstrate to everyone that they can participate and be welcomed to engage and grow, then many people are left behind and not helped forward.

We see this happening today. A recent paper from Raj Chetty demonstrated that black youth at the top of their class in math and science are less likely to go on to become inventors and file patents relative to white youth with average to below average performance in math and science. What is limiting our children is a lack of support and the lack of a vision of entrepreneurship. A classmate of mine, Chris Dickens, is a youth parol officer, and he explained that children who receive fee for service Medicaid during their time as a ward of the state see a reduced recidivism rate of about 50%. These two examples indicate that crime, success, and opportunity are not simply matters within our own power, but are shaped by the society and environment around us. If we celebrate a culture that criticizes and demeans those who have been marginalized, then we will constantly isolate those who need the most support, and our actions will create the very evils and social outcomes that we claim to dislike.

Do Racial Minorities Commit More Crime?

An argument you may hear about why arrest rates are so high for black and latino people in the United States is that those two groups commit crimes (particularly drug crimes) at higher levels than white people. The evidence for this is the number of black and latino people incarcerated relative to white people. If white people committed more crimes relative to black and latino people, we would have a prison population that was more representative of the non-prison population. This logic however, is incorrect.

Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow looks at this argument directly as she examines our criminal justice system and evaluates whether we police and arrest fairly or in a way that disproportionately affects black people and other minority groups. Alexander cites evidence throughout her book to suggest that our policing habits and incarceration practices are influenced by racial attitudes and implicit bias. When you view the system through this lens, you see that the argument above becomes an excuse for racial disparities in policing and an excuse for the poor economic and social outcomes for our minority populations.  In response to such faulty thinking, Alexander writes, “The former New Jersey attorney general dubbed this phenomenon the ‘circular illogic of racial profiling.’ Law enforcement officials, he explained, often point to the racial composition of our prisons and jails as justification for targeting racial minorities, but the empirical evidence actually suggested the opposite conclusion was warranted.”

Further, citing research in racial profiling, Alexander writes, “Whites were actually more likely than people of color to be carrying illegal drugs or contraband in their vehicles. In fact, in New Jersey, whites were almost twice as likely to be found with illegal drugs or contraband as African Americans, and five times as likely to be found with contraband as latinos.”

The New Jim Crow makes it clear that our prisons are over populated with black and latino individuals relative to the crime they commit (particularly drug crimes) and that this over representation is the result of years of racial bias in our country. The way we think about crime in low income neighborhoods, the way we think about drug offenses, and the way we review and evaluate criminal activity puts racial minorities at a disadvantage, and the arrest rates for black and brown people are evidence of our racial biases in policing rather than a justification for our policing and incarceration patterns.


Chapter 10 of Senator Cory Booker’s book United focuses on prison in the United States, and Booker begins by quoting Nelson Mandela, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”


A few years back I remember someone reading a Facebook post to me about Joe Arpaio, at the time the Maricopa County Sheriff. The post talked about how he was tough on those who had committed crime, deciding that if they were in prison for doing bad things, they would be limited in their rights and freedoms as opposed to coddled and pampered in a jail cell. The post applauded his decision to switch prison clothing to a pink color, his decision to move prisoners outside into tents, his decision to eliminate all television during recreation time and to only keep books on hand for leisure. It was easy to agree with the post, and tempting to share or like it and encourage Nevada prison authorities to move in the same direction.


A couple of years later, however, I had a Spanish theater class at the University of Nevada, Reno, and one of the plays focused on social justice, illegal immigrants, and out nation’s response those who come here by crossing our southern boarder. I was exposed to the stories and realities of those crossing the boarder, and I was also exposed to the dark side of Sheriff Arpaio. One play was filled with criticism of Arpaio’s approach to enforcing immigration laws and quoted many of the unsettling and discriminatory things that Arpaio had said. When I looked back at his priorities as sheriff and thought back to the Facebook post praising his decisions regarding jails, I saw things through a new perspective, and could not help but feel that Sheriff  Arpaio was acting in a way that was meant to dehumanize and belittle those in jail. Looking back, Arpaio was encouraging arrests based on racial motives, then demonstrating his power to control the lives of those members of racial minorities who were incarcerated in his prison system. I think it is fair to argue that his practices as Sherif were as much about power and control as they were about protecting society and creating safe communities.


Booker begins his discussion of incarceration in United by looking at the people we arrest in the United States and asking whether these people are sub-human, if they are somehow less than those of us who are not arrested, if the best approach to eliminating behaviors that harms society is to quarantine those who commit crimes from the rest of us, and if we can ignore societal problems by simply removing those who cause trouble. Mandela’s quote shows that the answer to these questions is no. The people in jail are still citizens. They are not sub-human, the problems and behaviors that led to the crimes committed cannot be solved simply with incarceration.


There may be a reason to remove television from prison, there may be a reason to change their wardrobe to pink, and there may be a reason to set up outdoor tents for housing, but it may be a mistake to assume that those in prison can grow and find the necessary improvement in their thoughts and lives to become productive and respectable people outside of prison simply by being tough and punishing them. I have not studied how we should treat those in prison, but I believe that treating prisoners as humans and showing them respect in a way that preserves some human dignity is key. Having a system that creates penalties and limits freedoms for those who commit crimes is reasonable, but that system should not de-humanize criminals and reduce them to something that does not deserve mutual respect.