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October 28, 2004

Piehl and DiLulio on whether Prison Pays; Drug Dealers

"Does Prison Pay?" by Anne Morrison Piehl and John J. DiLulio (The Brookings Review, Winter 1995) concludes generally that prison does pay: if the prisoners were not there, the cost of their crimes would be greater than the cost of their imprisonment. They except drug crimes from this, but only because they measure the benefit of imprisoning a drug dealer to be zero! In detail, here is what they say about crime generally:

Using the best available estimates of prison operating costs and the social costs of crime, we calculated that imprisoning 100 convicted felons who offended at the median rate cost $2.5 million, but that leaving them on the streets cost $4.6 million. We noted that for as much as a quarter of prisoners, other correctional options, such as probation, intensive drug treatment, or some other programs, might well be even more cost effective than imprisonment and we stressed the need for more research.

What we offer now is a new prisoner self-report survey, one that we conducted in New Jersey in 1993 of a random sample of 4 percent of recent male entrants to the state's prison population. Analysis of this survey reconfirms our earlier finding : prison pays for most state prisoners. Most state prisoners are either violent or repeat offenders who pose a real and present danger to the physical safety or property of any communities into which they might be released. For them, assuredly, prison pays.

As for drug dealers, they say,

We believe that the best estimate of the incapacitation effect (number of drug sales prevented by incarcerating a drug dealer) is zero, and therefore value drug crimes (sales and possession) at zero social cost.

Other analysts, including many whom no one can accuse of being soft on drug crime or in favor of drug legalization, have reached similar conclusions. For example, in a recent issue of Commentary, James Q. Wilson observed that prison terms for crack dealers do not have the same incapacitative effect as sentences for robbery. ... [A] drug dealer sent away is replaced by a new one because an opportunity has opened up. Many law enforcement and corrections officials have reached the same conclusion.


We are open to convincing evidence that the public is willing to pay substantial sums for retribution against drug dealers. And we are aware that certain types of prison-based drug treatment programs can work to reduce the chances that an offender will return to drugs or crime upon release. But let no one suppose that by incarcerating most drug offenders we succeed in averting lots of drug crimes. If there is an empirically sound argument for a no-parole policy that makes no distinctions between drug-only offenders and other prisoners, we have yet to hear it.

Note that at first they are careful to say that they believe there is no incapacitating effect of imprisoning drug dealers-- which allows for the possibility that there is a deterrent effect. But then in the last paragraph I quote, they talk about retribution but not deterrence. Sure, imprisoning one drug dealer just keeps him off the street and no other drug dealers, but it does deter other drug dealers to some extent. But there is even an incapacitative effect.

Suppose we randomly executed 10% of the executives of Fortune 500 companies each year. Would that reduce the number of executives? No-- there would just be a lot of promotions. Would it reduce the output of those companies? For sure.

The same is true for the heroin business, or for any business. Removing the leadership disrupts operations and deprives the business of its most talented and experienced managers. In addition, if the business is unethical, it deprives it of people who are in the doubly rare category of being both smart and evil.

How about "convincing evidence that the public is willing to pay substantial sums for retribution against drug dealers"? How about the evidence that the public *does* pay substantial sums for retribution against drug dealers? And it isn't because the public is unaware of this spending. It isn't an obscure policy. It is there because of public demand, not because politicians or bureaucrats or the elite media have an animus against drug dealers. What the public wants is simple and is what it gets-- lots of drug dealers put in prison. As DiIulio and Piehl point out earlier in the same article, this isn't a large proportion of their taxes, either. I don't know the public's motivation, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were independent of whether those drug dealers were replaced by others: it might well be a desire to punish evil and to rid society of evildoers. That more evildoers exist is beside the point.

Posted by erasmuse at October 28, 2004 05:12 PM

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