Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Public Safety and Public Spending: Asking the Wrong Question?

A Brookings Institution issue brief, More Prisoner Versus More Crime is The Wrong Question, by Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig addresses whether or not the debate around criminal justice has been framed by a false choice. The brief states that framing the incarceration debate as a tradeoff between public safety and public finance is far too narrow – and that in fact the best evidence suggests the prison population would be substantially reduced with negligible effects on crime rates.

The brief states that the research community has made significant gains in identifying the causal effects of crime-related policies, and establishing proven alternatives to prison for controlling crime. The recommendations listed in the report include:

  • The resources currently dedicated to supporting long prison sentences should be reallocated to produce swifter, surer, but more moderate punishment. This approach includes hiring more police officers -we know now that chiefs using modern management techniques can make effective use of them.
  • Increased alcohol excise taxes reduce not only alcohol abuse but also the associated crime at very little cost to anyone except the heaviest drinkers. Federal and state levies should be raised.
  • Crime patterns and crime control are as much the result of private actions as public. The productivity of private-security efforts and private cooperation with law enforcement should be encouraged through government regulation and other incentives.
  • While convicts typically lack work experience and skills, it has proven very difficult to increase the quality and quantity of their licit employment through job creation and traditional training, either before or after they become involved with criminal activity. More effective rehabilitation (and prevention) programs seek to develop non-academic ("social-cognitive") skills like self-control, planning, and empathy.
  • Adding an element of coercion to social policy can also help reduce crime, including threatening probationers with swift, certain and mild punishments for illegal drug use, and compulsory schooling laws that force people to stay in school longer.

In an economic climate that requires an increased focus on making both effective and cost efficient policy decisions – informing policy with research is an important tool. It is ever more important to ask the right questions – in order to ensure that public policy is leading to the desired outcomes for children, families and community. Public safety is an important part of ensuring communities are places where children and families can thrive – and the policy decisions that can achieve that aim are much broader than are often addressed. By reviewing the research and making decisions that are both effective and cost efficient policymakers can address problems in ways that might allow for investment in other needed areas.

For state policy guidance that is grounded in research and based on today’s economic realities visit the Policymakers’ Corner on