Douglas Holtz-Eakin '80: Costs of mass incarceration

Alumni

As the United States prison populations continues to grow, Douglas Holtz-Eakin ‘80, president of the American Action Forum and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, and Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, agree. “The putative benefits of more incarceration or longer sentences are actually costs.”

In a New York Times oped, the pair, who often represent very different political points of view, united in their stance against current policies of mass incarceration. As economists, they base their line of reasoning on three main points:

Time in prison not only means a loss of freedom, but it also means a loss of earnings, risks to the health and safety of the incarcerated, and prolonged absences from family that can strain marriages and increase behavioral problems in children. The probability that a family is in poverty increases by nearly 40 percent while a father is incarcerated.

Economic hardship often continues after release: A criminal record creates substantial obstacles to employment that could increase with the amount of time served, and incarceration decreases earnings by 10 to 40 percent, compared with similar workers. The fact that so many states have rules (including unnecessary and unnecessarily inflexible occupational licensing restrictions), and companies have practices that make it harder to hire former prisoners compound the economic and human damage.

Finally, more than $80 billion is spent annually on corrections, or over $600 per household. The annual cost of imprisoning one person averages approximately $30,000 for adults and $110,000 for juveniles, higher than the cost of a year of college. At the federal level, the Bureau of Prisons budget grew 1,700 percent from 1980 to 2010 and now devours more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.

Posted Date 
Tuesday, April 26, 2016

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