More Police, Fewer Prisons, Less Crime

The New York times as a good piece on prisons, police and crime:

“The United States today is the only country I know of that spends more on prisons than police,” said Lawrence W. Sherman, an American criminologist on the faculties of the University of Maryland and Cambridge University in Britain. “In England and Wales, the spending on police is twice as high as on corrections. In Australia it’s more than three times higher. In Japan it’s seven times higher. Only in the United States is it lower, and only in our recent history.”

…Dr. Ludwig and Philip J. Cook, a Duke University economist, calculate that nationwide, money diverted from prison to policing would buy at least four times as much reduction in crime. They suggest shrinking the prison population by a quarter and using the savings to hire another 100,000 police officers.

My work on policing in Washington, DC (with Jon Klick) also strongly suggests that more police pass the cost benefit test; we suggest that doubling the police force would not be unreasonable.


I guess the theory that more prison time reduces future hard-to-catch crime is out?

Exactly. Look at stiffer sentences for drug crimes over the last 30 years. Thanks to that we no longer have drug crimes!


Several papers presented at the Inter-American Development Bank look at the cost of crime and different policy alternatives for Latin America:,10306.html

One crucial aspect of the talks was the relative low benefit/cost ratio of prisons compared to alternatives. For example, Di Tella and Schargrodsky show that electronic monitoring devices reduce recidivism compared to standard prison sentences.

Who cares about recidivism? The goal is punishment, lots of punishment, make those mal hechors miserable. Of course eventually the prison guards will have all of the nation's fiat money but it will be worth it.

It's unfortunate, then, that the conspiracy to loot between public sector unions and low-accountability politicians has made it so hard to afford police.

You blame unions. I blame mandatory and minimum sentencing laws.

It's possible that you are both right. In this case, it's in fact almost guaranteed that you both are.

It's also the fact that we need 8 cops milling about a pregnant driver being beaten. We've lead these people to believe they are heroes just for always beeing paranoid for their own safety when they create their own non-existent threat exposures and escalate them into overwhelming overreactions.

Aren't the unions some of the main advocates for mandatory minimums? I'm thinking of the three-strikes laws in California.

Don't forget the for-profit prison lobby.

You might find this discussion interesting:

I am dubious that more police will help anything. Most police resources, in most cities, are expended on traffic enforcement and responding to calls, mostly domestic disturbances.

The balance of resources after traffic enforcement and domestic disturbances are devoted to the highest profile and least common crimes: felony property theft, battery and murder with a large portion also going to vice and drug enforcement. This does not necessarily reflect the needs of the overall community, because the community is largely unaffected by or concerned with the aforementioned. For example, the number one crime in the USA, both in dollar terms and number of individuals affected, is identity theft. How much money is spent policing this, close to zero. I live in Harris County, Texas where millions are spent on narcotics and vice enforcement. Yet the county of Harris and the city of Houston, collectively, field three detectives to investigate Identity theft, in a county with nearly four million people. If police forces devoted resources to the crimes which affected the most people, the expenditures would be completely inverted.

Traffic enforcement is increasingly automated via speed and red light cameras. Here in Baltimore the joke is that you're likely to get a ticket for doing 2mph (since the cameras are infamously faulty), but you won't get a DUI unless you crash into a police car as the police are far too busy with bodies being found in alleys.

Did you read the paper cited at the end?

"Using daily crime data during the period the terror alert system has been in place, we show that the level of crime decreases significantly, both statistically and economically, in Washington, D.C., during high-alert periods. The decrease in the level of crime is especially large in the National Mall. This provides strong evidence of the causal effect of police on the level of crime and suggests a research strategy that can be used in other cities."

To make two related points: spending more on more police officers makes intuitive sense to me, not on DHS grants to militarize police forces. I see it in my relatvely well policed neighborhood and I wish more [my city] neighborhoods could be so well protected. And reducing incarceration would be a consequence of drug decriminalization (at least marijuana decriminalization), indeed, it may not be possible any other way.

My sense is that "too many people in prison" is a boutique issue that doesn't connect with average voters, so nothing will be done about it. For the most part, people just want reasonably safe neighborhoods and they don't particularly care whether how that result is achieved.

Aren't most crimes committed by a small percentage of (consistently) repeat offenders? What this suggests is that the problem is the net is too fine-meshed: in catching THOSE criminals -- which is essential to public safety and welfare -- a number of other offenders are swept up too.

not sure that i buy this argument, especially when it involves aping the british model of policing. the violent crime rates in britain are frankly shocking, and the number of metropolitan areas is much lower, combining to make their system of policing vs. jailing questionable in the least. there are a few things that i agree with on this thread, that we should not be militarizing the police and we could decriminalize some minor vices, but i'd be extremely interested in seeing how policing dollars would be spent as i've become extremely skeptical of the public sector union aspect of hiring additional boots on the street along with skepticism regarding the effectiveness of the police tactics today. for example, i'm highly suspicious that more public funding flowing into police organizations would result in what is needed, policemen walking the beat in currently unpoliced areas.

Violent crime in Britain is a serious matter indeed. And it can occur anywhere, in any city or town. In US towns and cities, you have very (very) dangerous areas, but you know where they are so you avoid them, and in your neighbourhood months can go by without incident.

It goes against common sense to suggest that crime rates are the same in all neighborhoods in the UK (or anywhere). The Brits have not achieved a classless society and they have their crime-infested slums too.

Almost everyone I know in the UK has been burgled, some repeatedly. That doesn't happen here. Maybe it's all the guns.

Really, that's surprising as hardly any of the Brits I know have ever been burgled, let alone repeatedly.

And I suspect that I know more Brits than you, seeing as I'm British :-)

You may mean Londoners, which isn't quite the same thing, but even then I doubt that 'almost everyone' has been burgled, even once.

Expat with a counter-anecdote: my family lost a bunch of stuff to the council-housed yobs next door, in Yorkshire. That was a big reason we left.
Between the time we left for the US and the new owners moved in, they broke in to the attic, tapped the electrics behind the meter, and grew a cash crop, which finally got them caught (along with all the stolen goods they'd been fencing).

I may be missing something: how are police effective without jails? Or is the smuggled assumption reducing or eliminating drug-related crimes?

The argument is not to do away with prisons altogether, but to shorten prison sentences and spend the money saved on police. Even if more people are caught as a result, you can still have smaller prison populations when sentences are shortened considerably. See the example of New York city in the article linked.

More police means you can increase the probability and speed with which criminals are caught and then reduce sentence length - this may be more effective than random but draconian sentences. It is even possible that more police reduce the number of crimes enough so that the need for prisons falls.

Seems another good reason to me legalize most illicit drugs. Pfyster's objection go away, and we have more resources for policing.

What about reducing the number of things that are deemed illegal? Less infractions to police and less reasons to put people in prison for!

I was being deliberately extreme with my response to try to focus on precisely this point. More police reduce crimes by increasing the chances of being caught, but reducing the penalty increases the incentives to commit crimes and thus the number of crimes. At the extreme, you could have a 100% chance of being caught, but no penalty; I believe the outcome in that hypothetical would be an increase in crime. Obviously as you increase the penalty, it would reduce crime rate. You could plot out curves as you alter probabilities and penalties to generate expected crime rates; Alex is stating that we are on the wrong side of the "crime Laffer curve, so for the same cost, you can shift probability up and penalty down and result in less crime. I have my doubts it works that neatly in real life. An alternative way to shift resources is to reduce the number of criminal offenses, which is why I wondered if the smuggled assumption was eliminating drug-related offenses.

Bayesianism. Progressive sentencing. What amazes me is that the government has these people under observation for 12 years and contributes zero.

Draconian sentences? We've got rapists getting out in two years. Attempted murderers might get six.

Back in the sixties, aggravated assault would get three years, minimum. If anything, our prison terms are too short. The number one cause of the drop in crime is the increase in the prison population.

And to borrow a draconian doctrine from Les Miserables, a felon should owe his debt to society for the remainder of his life. When prison ends, probation begins and never ends. But not over a loaf of bread.

Our prison system needs to build discipline and respect for humanity

Yes, so who are the ones getting twenty and thirty years? I hear Aaron Swartz was threatened with 20 years for a non-violent crime?

Maybe US Attorny Oritz should've said "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.(or a loaf of bread)"

Swartz was offered 6 months in prison and turned it down. 20 years or whatever was the theoretical maximum and not a sentence Swartz ever would've realistically gotten.


How much was the sentence he would have gotten if he had *refused to plead guilty* and then ruled against?

If he'd gone to trial and been found guilty? Hard to say. It would be interesting to know what his lawyers thought the range of likely outcomes were. In any case, Swartz would have gotten a lot less than 20 years and our prisons are not full of dudes like Aaron Swartz serving 20 year sentences.


Another blogger put it nicely: "Aaron Swartz shouldn’t have had to accept a plea bargain in order to get a proportionate sentence: such a sentence should have been the *outcome* of a trial, not an inducement to forgo one."

Apart from the draconian laws that make 20 years even theoreticaly possible for the Swartz crime, I find the amount of prosecutorial discretion and bullying alarming.

I suppose that having a 12 Angry Men-style jury trial for every single criminal offense would be more fair than the present system, but I'm not sure how practical that would be. The only other criminal justice system I'm familiar with is Japan, and they rely even more heavily on pressuring defendants into pleading guilty than we do.

If not a jury, I'd even take a trial by tribunal or judge over a trial by public prosecutor.

Hey, if we got ACTUAL assholes off the streets, then maybe cops would stop treating us all as if we were assholes.

'More police means you can increase the probability and speed with which criminals are caught'

As demonstrated throughout the entire Soviet Bloc in the past.

'and then reduce sentence length – this may be more effective than random but draconian sentences.'

Well, the old Soviet Bloc certainly did not see this as either/or.

'It is even possible that more police reduce the number of crimes enough so that the need for prisons falls.'

Or, following the Soviet Bloc model, the need for prisons may or may not fall, but the need for forced labor camps to have forced laborers remained at least in the background.

Somewhat like the American prisoner laborer industry, actually. Maybe that old Soviet Bloc model does provide some insight into how to reduce crime.

Becker argued this, pretty convincingly in my opinion. Criminals are way afraid of getting caught then they are of serving lengthy jail terms. Put otherwise, a 80% chance of a 5 year term is a more effective deterrent than a 40% chance of a 10 year term.

Politicians prefer the latter because it's easier to accomplish and it *seems* like it's cheaper. In the long run, though, I'm sure it isn't.

The certainty of being caught is more a deterrent than the actual punishment. If you know you won't profit from a crime, than why even commit it?

If you know you won't pay for it even if caught, then why not?

Well we could just keep the police spending constant, and reduce the prison spending significantly.

Interesting tax question.

Prisons are paid for by state tax dollars; policemen are paid by local property taxes.

Ask yourself this question: How will there be a change to more policemen, and less prisons, if the tax mechanisms are not changed. Consider this also: you can think of crime as a virus which spreads, so that if you have poorly policed urban areas violence later spreads to the inner suburbs.

As this website likes to say: incentives matter. Including how we tax and how we allocate costs.

That may be the key to this. Cities are liberal, and also have the crime problem. They would prefer police, except that costs THEIR money, and so they back long sentences. The rest of the counties are conservative, and are willing to accept long sentences even though they have to pay much of the cost. Also, the rest of the counties except most extra policing dollars to be wasted on higher salaries and corruption instead of on extra police.


The depressed rural area gets the prison to employ locals.


Interesting idea, but even though it is expensive, the US approach to crime fighting is working. The crime rate in many places has never been lower. It doesn't mean you can't improve the process even more, but people will wonder why you are fixing something that they don't consider broken.

Take a look at this 20 year crime reduction streak in our former Murder Capital of America, Washington DC.

Amazing, simply amazing.....

If what cops are doing is so awesome, then why not do it moreso?

Heckuva job the police did at deterring the 2011 English riots.

I think that a presumption of Mr. Cook is wrong. Building more police forces won't serve a common good. We all know America is a police state after all. You can turn it into a real one and argue that crime has dropped, but the citizens will be the same savages as before. They will just be more scared. The question that is more important to solve is the education. The price, how is it valued by society, by poor families etc. How can someone justify spending more on police force than on public school system? How is it possible that children in America have to be accepted by lottery into charter schools.
I would look for an example in Canada. The question of poverty and education is connected to the immigration, because those people are the most vulnerable ones in the system. The way that Canada treats its immigrants is not great but it definitely leads to less crime, even though one fifth of the population of Canada was not even born inside of the Canadian territory.

a simple start would be gun insurance, using the sale of guns to support the impact of guns on society, then look to the Danish model. Compairing the UK vs US doesn't provide a fair assessment but I would support the theory that crime follows the path of least resistance and where there are no easy options the "going straight" option starts to look more attractive. the danish model shows that prisons are not a deterant. the deterant is being caught not the punishment. Find me a convicted murder who will say "the thought of a life sentance or capital punishment made him reconsider".

Find me a convicted murder who will say “the thought of a life sentance or capital punishment made him reconsider”.

Then we've got a violent-people-with-poor-impulse-control problem, not a gun problem. The counter is apparently that we'll disarm them so they can't consummate their violent impulses, but there are tons of firearms floating around out there already and they'll still find ways to assault. Perhaps being hit on the back of the head with a sawed-off shovel handle is better than being shot but I doubt it.

In the end, you're still talking about the same thing: a gun tax to fund more police and/or more prisons. There could be a benefit to making the cost of guns more prohibitive, but then you've got a black market for guns.

I don't want a societal free-for-all, but I sometimes wonder if a more effective deterrent would be the thought of neighboring residents getting to you before the police do.

appologies for my politically incorrect stereotype of murderers being male, sorry to all those hard working female murderers out there murdering people day in day out trying not to earn a fair living each day... ;-)

According to all the TV crime shows, NYC cops are working their fingers to the bone tracking down all those violent sociopaths who live in million dollar townhomes.

If Alex is right, then there is no need to pay for the cost of more police by shortening prison sentences, which he well knows. Lower crime rate = fewer prisoners, even if prison terms remain the same = cost savings for more police. Even if there's no absolute equivalency, there's no need for one. God did not set a total limit on the justice budget so you don't actually have to pay for more cops with fewer prisoners. I think most taxpayers would rather cut elsewhere than set convicts onto their streets. (Or, hell, you could make prisoners work, so they offset most, if not all, of the cost of their incarceration.)

So why equate the one expenditure with the other? Because Alex is just looking for ways palatable sounding arguments to nullify majority views on just prison sentences and impose his own view that all but the most violent criminals should serve very little time in prison. Here in the comment section and in many of his posts, he has labeled our current sentences "draconian." He's entitled to his views and I share them on the sentences for a few crimes that I do not believe should be crimes. But most Americans do not believe that sentences for most crimes are too harsh. If anything, if you tell most people the amount of time that criminals serve for various crimes, they want more. And they do not want this as a practical tool for preventing more crime. They believe prison is, primarily, a tool for justly punishing the wicked. I know sophisticated people like Alex scoff at that, but this is cheap way to do an endrun around people rather than making an argument.

Police versus prison or non-prison policemen versus prison policemen

They need to keep all those people in jail because otherwise the unemployment rate would be even higher.

I love the idea that if we would just let more people out of prison, the crime rate would go down. Liberals will just never, ever, ever let this idea go.

Of course, that's only half the equation. We also need more unionized policeman who retire at 52. But of course, under no circumstances should these new policemen be putting additional criminals in jail. That would lead to more crime; see Point #1. The new cops need to just stand around, being very policemanlike. This will cause would-be criminals to find other ways to spend their day, such as organic gardening.

It all makes perfect sense.

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