Underpoliced and Overprisoned, revisited

I’ve been writing for years that the United States is underpoliced and overprisoned. Time for a review:

NYTimes: “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.

Here’s a graph from Daniel Bier on the ratio of police to prison spending comparing the United States to Europe. The US spends relatively less on police and more on prisons than any European country.

And here’s a graph from President Obama’s CEA report on incarceration and the criminal justice system. The graph shows that the United States employs many more prison guards per-capita than does the rest of the world. Given our prison population that isn’t surprising. What is surprising is that on a per-capita basis we employ 35% fewer police than the world average. That’s crazy.

polce v prison

Our focus on prisons over police may be crazy but it is consistent with what I called Gary Becker’s Greatest Mistake, the idea that an optimal punishment system combines a low probability of being punished with a harsh punishment if caught. That theory runs counter to what I have called the good parenting theory of punishment in which optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh.

Increasing the number of police on the street, for example, would increase capture rates and deter crime and by doing so it would also reduce the prison population. Indeed, in a survey of crime and policing that Jon Klick and I wrote in 2010 we found that a cost-benefit analysis would justify doubling the number of police on the street. We based our calculation not only on our own research from Washington DC but also on the research of many other economists which together provide a remarkably consistent estimate that a 10% increase in policing would reduce crime by 3 to 5%. Using our estimates, as well as those of some more recent papers, the Council of Economic Advisers also estimates big benefits (somewhat larger than ours) from an increase in policing. Moreover, what the CEA makes clear is that a dollar spent on policing is more effective at reducing crime than a dollar spent on imprisoning.

Can we increase the number of police? Not today but in recent years large majorities of blacks, hispanics and whites have said that they support hiring more police. It is true that blacks are more skeptical than whites of police and have every reason to be. Some of the communities most in need of more police are also communities with some of the worst policing problems. Better policing and more policing, however, complement one another. Demilitarize the police, end the war drugs, regulate people less, restrain police unions and eliminate qualified immunity so that police brutality can be punished and the bad apples removed and the demand for police will soar.

As we reform and unbundle policing let us remember that lower crime has been one of the greatest benefits to African American men over the past 30 years.

…the most disadvantaged people have gained the most from the reduction in violent crime.

Though homicide is not a common cause of death for most of the United States population, for African-American men between the ages of 15 and 34 it is the leading cause, which means that any change in the homicide rate has a disproportionate impact on them. The sociologist Michael Friedson and I calculated what the life expectancy would be today for blacks and whites had the homicide rate never shifted from its level in 1991. We found that the national decline in the homicide rate since then has increased the life expectancy of black men by roughly nine months.

…The everyday lived experience of urban poverty has also been transformed. Analyzing rates of violent victimization over time, I found that the poorest Americans today are victimized at about the same rate as the richest Americans were at the start of the 1990s. That means that a poor, unemployed city resident walking the streets of an average city today has about the same chance of being robbed, beaten up, stabbed or shot as a well-off urbanite in 1993. Living in poverty used to mean living with the constant threat of violence. In most of the country, that is no longer true.

More police on the street is one cause, among many, of lower crime. Chicago just had a horrendous day with 18 innocent people murdered in mostly random drive-by shootings, in part because the police were occupied with protests and riots. As we reform, unbundle, and reimagine, let’s be careful not to reverse nearly thirty years of falling crime which has produced a tremendous increase in the standard of living of the poorest Americans.

We need better policing so that we can all be comfortable with more policing.


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