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EOP - Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System, 2016

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April 2016


Executive Summary....................................................................................................................................... 3
Introduction .................................................................................................................................................. 7
I. Defining the Landscape: Current Criminal Justice Policies and Historical Context.................................. 10
Incarceration Growth and the Criminal Justice System .......................................................................... 12
Policing and Arrests ............................................................................................................................ 12
Conviction Rates and Time Served...................................................................................................... 15
Local, State, and Federal Incarceration Trends................................................................................... 20
Recidivism ............................................................................................................................................... 24
Demographics of the Incarcerated Population ....................................................................................... 27
II. Costs and Benefits of Criminal Justice Policy from an Economic Perspective ........................................ 34
Costs of Crime to Victims and Society .................................................................................................... 34
Criminal Justice Policies and Crime Reduction Benefits ......................................................................... 35
Incarceration and Crime Reduction .................................................................................................... 36
Incarceration and Recidivism .............................................................................................................. 39
Police and Crime Reduction ................................................................................................................ 40
Employment, Wage, and Education Policy, and Crime Reduction ..................................................... 41
Direct Government Spending on the Criminal Justice System ............................................................... 43
Collateral Consequences of the Criminal Justice System ....................................................................... 45
Collateral Consequences in the Labor Market .................................................................................... 45
Collateral Consequences for Health, Financial Stability, Transportation, Housing,
and Food Security ............................................................................................................................... 48
Collateral Consequences for Families, Communities, and Minority Groups ...................................... 50
Costs and Benefits of Criminal Justice Policies ....................................................................................... 52
III. Taking the Next Step: Promising Areas for Reform and Administration Action .................................... 57
The Community ....................................................................................................................................... 57
Early Childhood Education and Targeted Prevention Programs for Youth ........................................ 57
Community Policing and Policing Transparency ................................................................................. 58
Employment Restrictions: Record Expungement, “Ban-the-Box”, and Occupational Licensing
Exclusions ............................................................................................................................................ 59
Access to Housing and Health Care .................................................................................................... 59
Criminal Justice System Databases and Reporting ............................................................................. 60

The Courtroom ........................................................................................................................................ 61
Sentencing Reform.............................................................................................................................. 61
Fines, Fees, and Bail ............................................................................................................................ 61
Drug Court Diversion Programs and Problem-Solving Courts ............................................................ 62
The Cell Block .......................................................................................................................................... 63
Solitary Confinement .......................................................................................................................... 64
IV. Conclusion.............................................................................................................................................. 66
References .................................................................................................................................................. 67


Executive Summary
Calls for criminal justice reform have been mounting in recent years, in large part due to the
extraordinarily high levels of incarceration in the United States. Today, the incarcerated
population is 4.5 times larger than in 1980, with approximately 2.2 million people in the United
States behind bars, including individuals in Federal and State prisons as well as local jails. The
push for reform comes from many angles, from the high financial cost of maintaining current
levels of incarceration to the humanitarian consequences of detaining more individuals than any
other country.
Economic analysis is a useful lens for understanding the costs, benefits, and consequences of
incarceration and other criminal justice policies. In this report, we first examine historical growth
in criminal justice enforcement and incarceration along with its causes. We then develop a
general framework for evaluating criminal justice policy, weighing its crime-reducing benefits
against its direct government costs and indirect costs for individuals, families, and communities.
Finally, we describe the Administration’s holistic approach to criminal justice reform through
policies that impact the community, the cell block, and the courtroom.
U.S. incarceration has grown rapidly over the last three and a half decades, driven by changes
in criminal justice policy, not underlying changes in crime.
In recent decades, the U.S. incarcerated population has grown dramatically, despite falling
crime rates.
• Adjusting for population, the incarceration rate grew by more than 220 percent between
1980 and 2014. The U.S. incarceration rate is higher than the any other country in the OECD,
and is more than four times the world average.
• At the same time, crime rates have fallen sharply; between 1980 and 2014 violent crime rates
fell by 39 percent and property crime rates fell by 52 percent.
• Economic research has found that incarceration growth is unlikely to be a root cause of the
drop in crime. Instead, research finds that the decrease in crime may be attributable to a
number of other factors, including demographic changes, changes in policing tactics, and
improving economic conditions.
Growth in U.S. incarceration has been fueled by criminal justice policies.
• If prison admission rates and average time served in prison remained the same as they were
in 1984, research suggests that State imprisonment rates would have actually declined by 7
percent by 2004, given falling crime rates. Instead, State prison rates increased by over 125
• Changes in the severity of sentencing and enforcement, which have led to longer sentences
and higher conviction rates for nearly all offenses, have been the primary drivers of the
incarceration boom.
• Changes in arrest patterns have also likely contributed to incarceration growth. As crime rates
have fallen, arrests have also declined but at a slower pace, resulting in increases in arrests

per crime, for both violent and property crimes. Meanwhile, drug arrest rates grew by over
90 percent between 1980 and 2014.
Interactions with the criminal justice system are disproportionately concentrated among
Blacks and Hispanics, poor individuals, and individuals with high rates of mental illness and
substance abuse.
• Though Blacks and Hispanics represent approximately 30 percent of the population, they
comprise over 50 percent of the incarcerated population.
• A large body of research finds that, for similar offenses, Blacks and Hispanics are more likely
than Whites to be stopped and searched, arrested, convicted, and sentenced to harsher
• Approximately 65 percent of prisoners have not completed high school and 14 percent have
less than an 8th grade education.
• Over a third of the prison population has received public assistance at some point in their
lives, 13 percent grew up in foster care, and over 10 percent experienced homelessness in
the year prior to entering prison.
• Over 50 percent of the incarcerated have mental health problems, while approximately 70
percent were regular drug users and 65 percent regularly used alcohol prior to being
Economics can provide a useful lens for thinking about the costs and benefits of criminal justice
Improving safety and reducing crime are central goals of the criminal justice system.
• Though crime rates have declined substantially over recent decades, the benefits of
eliminating existing crime are still extensive, likely totaling hundreds of billions of dollars each
• The benefits of reducing crime include lowering direct damages to property and medical
costs, as well as indirect costs of pain, suffering, fear, reduced quality of life or loss of life.
Criminal justice policies have the capacity to reduce crime, but the aggregate crime-reducing
benefits of incarceration are small and decline as the incarcerated population grows.
• Given that the U.S. has the largest prison population in the world, research shows that further
increasing the incarcerated population is not likely to materially reduce crime.
• Economic research suggests that longer sentence lengths have little deterrent impact on
offenders. A recent paper estimates that a 10 percent increase in average sentence length
corresponds to a zero to 0.5 percent decrease in arrest rates.
• Emerging research finds that longer spells of incarceration increase recidivism. A recent study
finds that each additional sanction year causes an average increase in future offending of 4
to 7 percentage points.


Investments in police and policies that improve labor market opportunity and educational
attainment are likely to have greater crime-reducing benefits than additional incarceration.
• Expanding resources for police has consistently been shown to reduce crime; estimates from
economic research suggest that a 10 percent increase in police force size decreases crime by
3 to 10 percent. At the same time, more research is needed to identify and replicate model
policing tactics that are marked by trust, transparency, and collaborations between law
enforcement and community stakeholders.
• Labor market conditions and increased educational attainment can have large impacts on
crime reduction by providing meaningful alternatives to criminal activity. Estimates from
research suggest that a 10 percent increase in the high school graduation rate leads to a 9
percent drop in arrest rates, and a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated
men leads to a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates.
The direct government costs of the criminal justice system are significant.
• Real expenditures on the criminal justice system as a whole total over $270 billion, or $870
per capita and have grown by over 70 percent in the last two decades.
• Real spending on incarceration totaled over $80 billion, or more than $260 per capita. In
2013, 11 states spent more on corrections than on higher education.
• Relative to average rates in the world, the United States employs 2.5 times more corrections
officers per capita, while we employ 30 percent fewer police officers per capita.
• The large and increasing costs of the criminal justice system reflect an increase in
enforcement over time, and potential adjustments to current policy could provide real
Criminal justice policies also generate a number of indirect costs, or collateral consequences,
for individuals with criminal records, their families, and their communities.
• Having a criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment. Recent job application
experiments find that applicants with criminal records were 50 percent less likely to receive
an interview request or job offer, relative to identical applicants with no criminal record, and
these disparities were larger for Black applicants. The formerly incarcerated earn 10 to 40
percent less than similar workers without a history of incarceration.
• The probability that a family is in poverty increases by nearly 40 percent while a father is
• Because incarceration secludes individuals from their families and communities, it decreases
the likelihood of marriage and increases the likelihood of divorce.
• It is estimated that more than 5 million children have a parent that has ever been
incarcerated, and rates of parental incarceration are 2 to 7 times higher for Black and Hispanic
children than White children. Parental incarceration is a strong risk factor for a number of
adverse outcomes, including antisocial and violent behavior, mental health problems, school
dropout, and unemployment.
Given the total costs, some criminal justice policies, including increased incarceration, fail a
cost-benefit test.


Economic researchers have evaluated the costs and benefits of policies in different criminal
justice areas and find that relative to investments in police and education, investments in
incarceration are unlikely to be cost-effective.
Moreover, cost-benefit evaluations of incarceration and sentencing often fail to consider
collateral consequences, which would render these policies even more costly.
CEA conducted “back-of-the-envelope” cost-benefit tests of three policies: increasing
incarceration, investing in police, and raising the minimum wage.
o We find that a $10 billion dollar increase in incarceration spending would reduce
crime by 1 to 4 percent (or 55,000 to 340,000 crimes) and have a net societal benefit
of -$8 billion to $1 billion dollars.
o At the same time, a $10 billion dollar investment in police hiring would decrease crime
by 5 to 16 percent (440,000 to 1.5 million crimes) have a net societal benefit of $4 to
$38 billion dollars.
o Drawing on literature that finds that higher wages for low-income individuals reduce
crime by providing viable and sustainable employment, CEA finds that raising the
minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would result in a 3 to 5 percent crime decrease
(250,000 to 510,000 crimes) and a societal benefit of $8 to $17 billion dollars.

The Administration is committed to a holistic approach to criminal justice reform that creates
a fairer and smarter system in the community, the cell block and the courtroom.




Investments in early childhood, including limiting out of school suspensions, can reduce
involvement with the criminal justice system, while increasing resources for police,
community policing, and enhanced police transparency can improve community safety and
build trust.
In order to foster law enforcement agencies that both build trust and keep communities safe,
investments in police hiring should also be accompanied by support for community policing
strategies and evaluation of best practices.
Addressing criminal record employment restrictions, through expanding record
expungement, “banning-the-box”, and limiting blanket criminal record exclusions in
occupational licensing laws, as well as improving access to health care and housing can help
reduce the collateral consequences of convictions.
Working with Congress and the States to rationalize the ways we impose sentences, and
reduce high rates of incarceration, will make our criminal justice system fairer, smarter, and
more cost-effective. To further these goals, the Administration is also working with State and
local jurisdictions to implement new approaches to fines, fees, and bail that do not criminalize
Fixing the conditions in the cell block and offering more job training for inmates can reduce
barriers to reentry and decrease recidivism.


In recent decades, the criminal justice system in the United States has expanded dramatically.
Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in the U.S. has grown by nearly 350 percent,
resulting in approximately 2.2 million people behind bars. 1 Today, the United States incarcerates
more people than any other country in the world, and our per-capita incarceration rate is more
than four times the world average.
As the incarcerated population has climbed, the crime rate in the United States has declined
dramatically. Violent crime has fallen by 39 percent and property crimes have been cut in half
over the past three and a half decades. 2 Yet research has established that rising incarceration is
not principally responsible for the reduction in crime, and that higher levels of imprisonment
have occurred despite—not because of—changes in underlying criminal activity. Though there is
no collective consensus about the causes of the decline in crime, several factors may have
contributed to the crime drop including demographic changes, changes in policing tactics, and
improving economic conditions. A large body of economic research shows that incarceration has
only a small impact on crime reduction, and that this impact diminishes as the incarcerated
population grows.
Instead, the surge in incarceration has been driven by changes in criminal justice policies. Policies
enacted at the Federal and State levels emphasizing harsher sentencing rules (such as the more
frequent use of mandatory minimums and “three strikes” rules) and greater enforcement of
criminal sanctions have led to longer prison sentences and higher conviction rates. The upsurge
in incarceration, together with a growing recognition of the costs of current criminal justice
policies, have led many policymakers, researchers, and advocates, across the political spectrum,
to conclude that the criminal justice system needs to be comprehensively reformed.
Within this context, economics can provide a valuable lens for evaluating the costs and benefits
of criminal justice policy. The criminal justice system has clear benefits: the total social cost of
crime in America likely totals hundreds of billions of dollars each year, and the criminal justice
system plays an important role in reducing crime and maintaining the safety of citizens.
However, the criminal justice system also carries substantial costs. In 2012, real expenditures on
the criminal justice system totaled over $274 billion, or $870 per capita, a 74 percent increase
relative to spending in 1993.3 In 2013, 11 states spent more on corrections than on higher
education (Mitchell and Leachman 2014).

Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1980-2014. “Prisoners” Series. U.S. Department of Justice; Bureau of Justice Statistics.
1980-2014. “Jail Inmates at Midyear” Series. U.S. Department of Justice;
Federal Bureau of Investigation. 1980-2014. “Crime in the United States – Uniform Crime Reports.” U.S.
Department of Justice.
Real expenditures are in 2015 dollars.


In addition to its direct costs, the criminal justice system also imposes substantial collateral
consequences on individuals with criminal records, their families, and their communities. Having
a criminal record makes it more difficult to find employment and depresses earnings. Criminal
sanctions can also have negative consequences for individuals’ health, debt, transportation,
housing, and food security. These consequences can add up to large and lasting negative impacts
for incarcerated individuals’ families and communities. The probability that a family is living in
poverty increases by nearly 40 percent while a father in is prison, and children with incarcerated
parents face an increased risk of a variety of adverse outcomes, including antisocial and violent
behavior and lower educational attainment (Johnson 2009).
These costs fall most heavily on Black and Hispanic men, poor individuals, and individuals with
high rates of mental illness and substance abuse. Although Black and Hispanic Americans account
for only 30 percent of the population, they comprise over 50 percent of the incarcerated
population (U.S. Census; Carson 2015). One-third of the prison population has received public
assistance, and one in ten incarcerated Americans were homeless in the year before entering
prison (James and Glaze 2006). Criminal justice sanctions can compound existing disadvantages
for these populations, reinforcing patterns of intergenerational poverty.
Recognizing the size of these costs, the Administration is committed to meaningful reform of the
criminal justice system, and has taken actions to improve underlying conditions in the
community, the courtroom, and the cell block. The Administration has invested in communities
to address the root causes and consequences of involvement in the justice system. The
Administration has expanded access to early childhood education and targeted prevention
programs for youth, which have been found to significantly reduce criminal behavior later in life.
In addition, the Administration has worked to improve community-police relations by providing
extra resources for law enforcement, investing in community policing, and increasing police
In the courtroom, the Administration has worked to enhance common sense sentencing reforms
by reducing disparities in mandatory minimums for crack and powder cocaine possession, and
modernizing Federal sentencing guidelines for drug crimes. New grants have been issued to assist
States in reducing the burden that fees, fines, and bail impose on low-income Americans. And
the Administration has invested in court diversion programs that support Veterans and
individuals living with mental health conditions and addiction.4
Finally, the Administration has invested in rehabilitation programs in prisons and jails. Reentry
programs have been advanced by expanding education and job-training programs for those who
have served their time. The Administration has also prioritized reforming solitary confinement
practices, which can lead to negative long-term consequences for those who are exposed to them
and for the communities to which these individuals return.

Court diversion programs allow defendants to avoid court sanctions or court proceedings if the defendant meets
prescribed conditions, which may include drug treatment or rehabilitation.



This report builds on this progress by offering economic perspectives on criminal justice reform.
The report first analyzes the growth in the incarcerated population, and finds that changes to
criminal justice policies—not underlying changes in crime—are principally responsible for this
trend. The report also examines the relative costs and benefits of different criminal justice
policies, and concludes that investments in police, education, and jobs programs are more costeffective than increasing incarceration. Finally, the report outlines several promising areas for
reform, and highlights recent actions taken by the Administration to holistically improve the
criminal justice system.



Defining the Landscape: Current Criminal Justice Policies and
Historical Context

Over the last three and a half decades, the criminal justice system in the United States has rapidly
expanded. Most striking is the growth in incarceration; the number of people behind bars grew
by 350 percent between 1980 and 2014 (Figure 1).
Figure 1:

Mirroring the rise in incarceration, direct expenditures on the criminal justice system have
increased substantially. Real total government spending on the criminal justice system grew by
74 percent between 1993 and 2012, to $274 billion. Similarly, in 2012, real per capita criminal
justice spending was $872 per year, up 43 percent over the same time period. Real expenditures
on corrections were $83 billion, representing over a quarter of total criminal justice spending in
2012 (Figure 2). 5

All real dollar figures in this report use 2015 dollar values. A more detailed discussion of direct government
expenditures on the criminal justice system can be found in the section on “Direct Government Spending on the
Criminal Justice System.”



Figure 2:

Over the same time period, violent crime rates declined dramatically, falling by 39 percent since
1980 and by 52 percent from their peak in 1991 (Figure 3). Despite the correlation between
declining crime and increasing incarceration, rising incarceration is not a fundamental driver of
the decline in crime. A large body of economic research shows that incarceration has only a small
aggregate impact on crime reduction, and that this impact falls as the incarcerated population
grows. 6 In fact, because rising incarceration did not drive the reduction in crime, the rise of prison
population is all the more striking since crime was actually falling.
Figure 3:


The impact of incarceration on crime reduction is discussed in detail in Section II.B of the report.


A number of other factors have contributed to the decline in crime, though researchers have not
reached consensus on the relative importance of these causes. Improvements in economic
conditions through rising incomes and falling unemployment have likely played a role.
Demographic changes also likely play a part; the youth proportion of the U.S. population (ages
15-30) declined by 12 percent between 1980 and 2013, reducing the general propensity for
criminal behavior which is more prevalent among young people. Improvements in police tactics
and technology used in policing may have also played a role. Other potential explanations include
declines in alcohol consumption, decreases in “crack” cocaine use, and a reduction in exposure
to lead (see Roeder, Eisen, and Bowling 2015 and citations below). 7
In this section, we explore the underlying mechanics of the rise in incarceration in the United
States. We find that the primary drivers of incarceration growth have been an increase in
conviction rates given arrest and a rise in average sentence length. Finally, we examine the
characteristics of the population impacted by mass incarceration, a group that is
disproportionately represented by poor minority men, as well as individuals with a history of
mental illness and other health and social risk factors.

Incarceration Growth and the Criminal Justice System
There are several steps in the criminal justice process, including interactions with police, arrest,
declaration of criminal charges, court proceedings, conviction, and sentencing. Criminal justice
system actions at each step of this process have the potential to change the size and composition
of the incarcerated population. Criminal justice policies, not changes in underlying crime, account
for nearly all of the growth in the incarcerated population in recent decades (e.g. Raphael and
Stoll 2013b; Neal and Rick 2014).
Policing and Arrests

The initial entry point into the criminal justice system is arrest. More policing can potentially lead
to more arrests and contribute to rising prison admissions. Growth in the total police force,
however, has slowed in recent years after increasing by over 20 percent between 1980 and 1995.
After factoring in population growth, total growth in policing rates, the proportion of police to
residents, has been flat over the last three and a half decades. 8 Given these patterns, it is unlikely
that changes in police staffing levels are a primary driver of the incarceration boom (Figure 4).
Though there is no consensus about the relative importance of these factors, there is a large body of research on
these topics. Further citations for the following topics include: income and unemployment (e.g. Raphael and WinterEbmer 2001; Gould, Weinberg, and Mustard 2002); demographic changes and aging of the population (e.g. Levitt
1999; Tittle et al., 2003; Blumstein and Nakamura 2009); police technology and tactics (e.g. Weisburd et al. 2010;
Braga, Papachristos and Hureau 2014; Roeder, Eisen, and Bowling 2015); declines in alcohol consumption (e.g.
Markowitz 2000); decreases in “crack” cocaine use (e.g. Fryer et al. 2013; Evans, Garthwaite, and Moore 2012); and
reduction in lead exposure (e.g. Reyes 2007).
Figure 4 uses data from two different sources; Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Employment and Expenditure
Extracts (1980-1994) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Uniform Crime Reports (1995-2014). We utilize
full-time equivalent police counts from BJS and divide these by the Census population to create rates. For the FBI


Figure 4:

At the same time, descriptive data suggest that the likelihood of arrest has increased modestly
for violent and property crimes despite falling crime rates. Between 1980 and 2014 both violent
crime rates and violent crime arrests fell, but because crime decreased by more than arrests, the
likelihood of being arrested for a given crime increased. A similar phenomenon occurred with
property crimes. In aggregate, the rate of arrests per violent crime and arrests for property crime
have both increased by approximately 20 percent since 1980 (Figure 5). 9

series, we scale officer counts by population of districts reporting. These data sets come from different surveys of
police departments and use different methodologies to create aggregate estimates of police and police per capita.
Because of this, there is a break in the data series between 1994 and 1995, and each section of the data series should
be considered separately. Per capita policing is flat in each data portion.
Arrests can only be benchmarked to crimes for categories of crimes that are reported, or violent and property
crimes. Crime rates for other offenses are not reported or tracked comprehensively.


Figure 5:

An important exception to the declining trend in arrests is arrests for drug crimes, which have
grown at a rapid pace. Between 1980 and 2014, drug arrest rates increased by over 90 percent,
and this dramatic rise has contributed to rising incarceration rates. In 2006, the rate of drug
arrests reached a peak and approximately 2 million people were arrested for drug crimes that
year (Figure 6).10 Though the trend has partially reversed in recent years, the dramatic rise in
drug arrests has contributed to rising prison admission rates for drug crimes.
Figure 6:

Figure 6 applies Index I crime definitions to the arrest reports for violent and property crimes. Drug crimes include
drug possession and trafficking. Other crimes include fraud, sexual assault, simple assault, weapons offenses, arson
DUIs and other miscellaneous offenses. BJS data applies assumptions to extend arrest rates from the subset of
reporting agencies to national rates and because of this we use BJS data from 1980-2012. FBI UCR data is used for
2013-2014. Because police reporting increases substantially over time, the two data sets are comparable in recent



Conviction Rates and Time Served

After being arrested and charged with a crime, a defendant may be detained in jail while awaiting
court proceedings. The defendant then faces conviction or acquittal, or charges may be
dismissed. Thus, case disposition represents another decision point that may influence trends in
incarceration. Convictions have dramatically increased over the last several decades, and rising
rates of conviction are a root cause of the increase in incarceration in the United States. Between
1986 and 2006, total conviction rates in State courts (per 100,000 residents) increased by 56
percent. The largest increase occurred among drug trafficking convictions – which more than
doubled – while violent crime convictions increased somewhat and property crime convictions
were little changed. 11 The rise in convictions for drug crimes is particularly striking; by 2006 there
were over 250,000 drug convictions in State courts, outpacing convictions for violent and
property crimes. Since their 2006 peak, drug arrests have leveled, declining by 23 percent.
Conviction rates for other crimes, which include simple assaults, fraud, sexual assault, weapons
offenses, and drunk driving, also increased by 94 percent (Figure 7).12
Figure 7:

Although convictions are partly a function of the severity of a given crime and the strength of the
case against the defendant, it is unlikely that the secular rise in total convictions over the last
several decades can be explained by case-specific factors (Raphael and Stoll 2013b). Instead,
changes in practice and policy of local government, prosecutors, and the court system have likely
driven the increase in convictions.

For consistency with crime statistics, the violent and property categories used here are analogous to the FBI Index
I categories and do not align with the National Judicial Reporting Program categories. Violent crime includes murder,
rape and robbery, while property crime includes burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft.
Conviction categories map to arrest categories in Figure 7. Drug crimes are split into possession and trafficking
because possession has only been tracked since 1990 and total drug crimes cannot be derived for earlier years.


In particular, the increase in convictions likely reflects the “get tough on crime” movement in the
1980s and 1990s that caused cultural changes in the criminal justice system. During this time
period, a series of Federal and State laws increased sentence lengths, through new mandatory
minimum penalties, repeat offender laws, and restrictions on parole releases (Travis, Redburn,
and Western 2014, Ch. 3). Additionally, through the 1984 crime bill, the federal government
banned parole. Moreover, the “War on Drugs” expanded resources for fighting drug crime and
placed an emphasis on incarcerating individuals arrested for drug crimes (Albonetti 2016).
Popular support for harsher sanctions for offenders also influenced elections for judges, often
translating to higher conviction rates (Weiss 2006).
The growth in incarceration admissions has been driven by rising total convictions, not by an
increase in the relative proportion of convictions that result in a prison sentence (Figure 8). Over
time, the fraction of State court convictions that resulted in an incarceration sentence was
roughly constant. Similarly, the proportions of State court convictions that resulted in jail or
probation sentences were also unchanged.
Figure 8:

While many common conceptions of the criminal justice system focus on trials to decide guilt or
innocence, the vast majority of convicted defendants agree to plea bargains rather than a jury
trial. Because guilty pleas can involve concessions from prosecutors, it is possible that they may
lead to probation or shorter sentences (Devers 2011). However, in practice, the plea bargaining
process may provide defendants with limited negotiating power. While it is possible that
defendants rationally weigh the risks and benefits of going to trial before accepting plea deals, in
an environment with widespread plea bargaining and broad prosecutorial discretion, defendants
may be pressured to enter a plea. In extreme cases, defendants who are afraid of risky trial
outcomes may even plead guilty to charges for crimes that they did not commit (Rakoff 2014).


However, changes in the manner of conviction over time, whether a plea bargain or a trial, are
also unlikely to have caused the increase in convictions leading to incarceration. Over 90 percent
of convictions in State courts are guilty pleas, with only 5 to 10 percent of convictions determined
at trial. These proportions have been relatively constant over recent decades, and therefore, high
rates of guilty plea convictions are unlikely to be driving the boom in incarceration admissions
(Figure 9).
Figure 9:

Changes in total conviction rates, the proportion of defendants convicted for the crimes charged,
have increased the likelihood of prison admission and inflated the prison population. Below,
Figures 9 and 10 show estimates of changes in the number of people admitted to prison per
arrest and time served in prison between 1984 and 2004 for different crime types, adapted from
Raphael and Stoll (2013b). These calculations show that the number of people admitted to prison
per arrest have more than doubled for most crimes and have tripled for drug crimes (Figure 10).13

Per crime calculations in Figure 9 are taken from Raphael and Stoll (2013b) that joins FBI Uniform Crime Report
data on arrests and prison admissions from the National Corrections Reporting Program data. Because NCRP data
covers a subset of states, these estimates reflect the best available data but may not generalize to national trends.
"Average" is calculated only from the distribution of conviction rates for the subset of crimes shown.


Figure 10:

Longer sentences have also contributed to today’s high incarceration rates. Between 1984 and
2004 most crimes shown experienced a substantial increase in time served (Figure 11). 14 Despite
a sharp increase in the number of people convicted of drug crimes, time served for drug crimes
across State and Federal prisons remained roughly constant, declining by 6 percent, with an
average incarceration time of 21 months in 2004 (Figure 11). The net impact of these changes, a
substantial increase in sentence length for most offenses and sharp rise in convictions for all
crimes, was a large contributor to incarceration growth (Travis, Western, and Redburn 2014, Ch.

Time served measures the actual amount of time an individual is incarcerated and is less than or equal to an
assigned sentence, given the possibility of early release on parole. Per crime calculations in Figure 10 are taken from
Raphael and Stoll (2013b) that analyzes releases in the National Corrections Reporting Program data for State
incarceration. As in the prior chart, this chart uses NCRP data that covers a subset of states. The "Average" calculation
uses the distribution of crime categories also provided by the authors for the subset of crimes in the figure.


Figure 11:

Relative to the analysis of all prisoners, changes in Federal prisons show different patterns in time
served (Figure 12 below). According to analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts, time served in
Federal prisons increased for all offenses between 1988 and 2012. In contrast to the small change
in time served for drug crimes in all prisons, time served for drug offenses in Federal prisons more
than doubled over the last two decades (The Pew Charitable Trusts 2015).
Figure 12:

Relative to other factors, rising prison admission rates have been the most important contributor
to the increase in incarceration. Raphael and Stoll (2013b) decompose the growth in the prison
population into changes in crime rates, prison admissions and time served. If criminal justice
policies remained the same as they were in 1984, State imprisonment rates would have actually

declined by 7 percent by 2004, given falling crime rates. Instead, State prison rates increased by
over 125 percent. After accounting for falling crime rates, over two-thirds of this increase was
attributable to rising prison admission rates, and 14 percent to increases in time served. In
Federal prisons, longer sentences and rising admissions rates have been equally important, each
accounting for approximately 20 percent of the growth in the Federal prison rate that is not due
to changes in crime (Figure 13).15
Figure 13:

Local, State, and Federal Incarceration Trends

The combination of dramatic increases in admissions rates and the multiplicative effect of longer
sentences has led to a sharp rise in the incarcerated population. The share of the population that
is incarcerated has more than tripled since 1980 and today stands at approximately 2.2 million
people behind bars. State prisoners represent the majority of the incarcerated population, at 58
percent, while a third are detained in local jails and approximately 9 percent are in Federal
prisons. Despite its small size, the Federal prison population grew the fastest over this period,
increasing by over 755 percent (Figure 14).

The incarceration rates and changes shown above are simulated from analysis in Raphael and Stoll (2013b). Each
component of the 2004 bar shows the contribution of 2004 policy to the 2004 rate. For example, if only crime rates
had changed, 2004 prison rates would decrease by 16, while changes in admissions rates increased the incarceration
rate by 194.


Figure 14:

As convictions have increased, the number of individuals detained in local jails while awaiting a
conviction or acquittal in their case has also risen. Between 1983 and 2014 the proportion of jail
inmates who had been convicted grew by 90 percent, but was dwarfed by the rise in jail inmates
not convicted of a crime, which grew by 200 percent (Figure 15). Growth in the unconvicted jail
population has been heightened by an increase in the use of financial bail that many cannot
afford; 16 in 1990, 53 percent of felony defendants in large counties were assigned bail, and by
2009, this proportion had grown to 72 percent. 17 Many defendants have limited resources and
are not able to post bail, remaining incarcerated while awaiting conviction or acquittal (CEA

Financial bail schedules increase with the severity of crimes and are meant to increase the likelihood of detainment
for more dangerous offenders. However, uniform bail schedules are a crude way to screen pretrial defendants for
their risk of flight or to the community because it does not consider an individual’s ability to pay any given bail
assignment. In effect, standardized bail schedules often detain the poorest rather than the most dangerous
offenders. Instead, risk-assessment tools and modeling can be used to determine non-financial release based on the
relative risks posed by a particular individual (see CEA 2015b).
Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1990-2009. “Felony Defendants in Large Counties.” Department of Justice.


Figure 15:

In terms of offense characteristics, the State and Federal prison population have pronounced
differences. Approximately half of State prisoners are serving sentences for violent crimes, while
in Federal prisons, half of prisoners are serving sentences for nonviolent drug crimes (Figure
16). 18 The Federal and State prison populations have stark contrasts in other crime categories as
well; while 19 percent of State prisoners are incarcerated for property crimes, this proportion is
only 6 percent for Federal prisoners. In the Federal prison population, the proportion of other
offenses, which include weapons and public order violations, has more than doubled since 1990.
Figure 16:

As in charts above, crime categories are derived Bureau of Justice Statistics definitions for violent, property and
drug crimes. Other crime includes all other categories of offenses, such as weapons offenses, sexual assault, simple
assault, and fraud.


There are also large geographic differences in incarceration rates across States. Below, a map
shows the distribution of total sentenced State and Federal prisoners per 100,000 residents. In
2014, the national sentenced imprisonment rate was 471 prisoners per 100,000 residents.19
Southern states tend to have higher prison rates, with the highest rate of imprisonment at 816
in Louisiana, more than 1.7 times the national rate. At the other end of the distribution, Maine
had the lowest prison rate of 153, less than a third of the national rate (Figure 17).
Figure 17:

U.S. incarceration is even more striking when compared to incarceration in other countries. In
fact, the United States incarcerates over 20 percent of the world’s prisoners despite having less
than 5 percent of the world’s population (Census 2015; Walmsley 2016). Adjusting for
population, Figure 18 displays a descending ranking of incarceration rates for 20 countries with
population over 200,000. 20 The United States outranks all other countries on this list, with an
incarceration rate of 698, and the U.S. incarceration rate is over four times the world average
rate (Walmsley 2016).
Sentenced prisoner counts include prisoners with sentences longer than 1 year under the jurisdiction of State or
Federal correctional facilities.
Several small island countries have high incarceration rates, in part because their populations are so small. In 2015,
Seychelles (population 89,000) had the highest incarceration rate in the world at 799 incarcerated individuals per
100,000 residents (World Bank 2016; Walmsley 2016). This chart excludes territories and countries with fewer than
200,000 residents.


Figure 18:

There is significant churn in the incarcerated population, with over 600,000 prisoners released
each year. As the prison population has grown, so has the number of prison releases, increasing
by 300 percent since 1980 (Figure 19). Though time served in prison has increased, most
prisoners can expect to spend less than five years in prison for a single crime (Raphael and Stoll
2013b), and short-to-medium length spells of incarceration lead to the release of more than a
quarter of the incarcerated population annually.
This process is amplified by local jails that typically have higher turnover and hold inmates for
shorter periods of time; time served in jails averages 23 days and has increased by over 60
percent over the last three decades (Subramanian et al. 2015). While there are approximately
740,000 inmates in local jails, the total number of jail admissions was 11.4 million in 2014,
translating to over 25,000 individuals released on a daily basis (Minton and Zheng 2015). 21

CEA calculated daily release levels by calculating daily admissions from total admissions and subtracting the
average daily population in local jails.



Figure 19:

Prison releases can contribute to subsequent prison admissions by expanding the population
under parole supervision, if there is a high risk that individuals are readmitted to prison for
technical violations of parole or other low-level offenses.22 The State parole population increased
by 170 percent between 1984 and 2004 to over 680,000 individuals—about 30 percent of the
size of the incarcerated population in that year. In 2004, new court commitments accounted for
60 percent of prison admissions, while parole violations comprised 30 percent and probation
violations represented 10 percent. New prison admissions due to technical parole violations have
also risen; between 1984 and 2004, the prison admission rate for technical parole violations
increased by over 200 percent (Raphael and Stoll 2013b).
Total 5 year recidivism rates for State prisoners are over 70 percent, including both new court
convictions and arrests (Durose, Cooper, and Snyder 2014). These high rates of reoffending have
amplified growth in the incarcerated population and created a revolving door in prisons.
Below, Figure 20 shows rates of re-offending derived from survey data of individuals who are
incarcerated, through measuring the criminal history of those in custody. The first column shows
that about a quarter of admitted prisoners do not have a prior incarceration sentence before
entering prison or jail. Of the three-quarters entering custody who have a prior sentence, about
a third did not have any violent convictions for either their current sentence or prior sentences.
The median admitted inmate has two prior incarceration sentences, and 15 percent have served
more than five prior sentences.

A technical violation of parole occurs when a parolee does not comply with supervision conditions, including
employed, attending parole officer meetings, completing substance abuse or other treatment sessions, and/or
fulfilling community service requirements. Behaviors that qualify as technical violations of parole differ by state, but
typically do not include arrests or charges for new criminal or misdemeanor offenses (Lawrence 2008).


Figure 20:

In Figure 21, recidivism is measured not through the incarceration history of individuals entering
prisons or jails, but by following the cohort of individuals released from State prisons in 2005.
This measure includes both arrests and convictions that lead to future incarceration, and shows
that roughly half of reoffending over a five year horizon occurs within the first year of release.
Within five years, 77 percent of released prisoners have been re-arrested and 55 percent have
been convicted of an offense that resulted in a return to prison.
Figure 21:

Former Federal prisoners have relatively lower rates of recidivism; according to a recent study by
the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), about half of Federal prisoners released in
2005 were arrested again within 8 years and about a quarter returned to prison in this time frame

(USSC 2016). In this study, USSC also finds that criminal history is highly predictive of future
offending, with re-offending rates after release decreasing for individuals that had fewer criminal
history points and prior convictions before admission (Figure 22). 23
Figure 22:
Cumulative 8-year Re-arrest of Released Federal
Prisoners by Criminal History Score, 2005




















10 >10





Criminal History Points

Source: United States Sentencing Commission, USSC (2016).

Demographics of the Incarcerated Population
The population that comes in contact with the criminal justice system is not representative of the
U.S. population more broadly. Instead, the demographics of this group are highly concentrated,
with an over-representation of Blacks and Hispanics, as well as low-income individuals. The
incarcerated population also has a high prevalence of health and social risk factors, including
mental illness, prior physical or sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol abuse.
The incarcerated population primarily consists of adult men. Though children below the age of
majority (typically 18 years old) can be tried and detained as adults, most juveniles that are
detained are held in designated facilities, such as detention centers, residential treatment
centers, boot camps, and group homes. In recent decades, juvenile detention rates have
declined, decreasing by over 50 percent between 1997 and 2013 (Figure 23). While the number
of juveniles detained has declined, the age of majority is not uniform across states; in 10 states
children under the age of 17 are tried as adults in criminal trials and face a higher risk of being
sentenced to adult prison (Juvenile Justice Initiative 2016).

Criminal history points are designations that reflect the number and severity of prior convictions. A higher
number of criminal history points reflects a more significant criminal history.


Figure 23:

Women comprise less than 10 percent of the total incarcerated population. Adjusting for
population, female incarceration rates have increased faster than rates for men; since 1990,
female incarceration rates have more than doubled, while male incarceration rates increased by
50 percent (Figure 24).
Figure 24:

Conversely, minority individuals are over-represented in the arrest and incarceration population.
Total arrest rates for Blacks (per 100,000 residents) are double arrest rates for Whites. Though
arrest rates have declined for all groups since 1990, current arrest rates still show marked
disparities; in 2014, Black arrest rates were over 120 percent larger than the total arrest rate for
all demographic groups (Figure 25). Racial disparities in drug arrests are particularly pronounced;

in 2014, drug arrest rates for Blacks were more than twice the drug arrest rates for Whites (UCR
Arrest Data 2015, Census 2015, CEA Calculations). Though comprehensive data is not available
for Native Americans over time, available evidence suggests that the arrest rate for Native
Americans is 1.5 times the rate for Whites (Hartney and Vuong 2009).
Figure 25:

This pattern is also reflected in the incarcerated population. Though Blacks and Hispanics
represent approximately 30 percent of the population, they comprise over half of those
incarcerated (Census 2015; Carson 2015). While Black incarceration rates declined modestly
between 2000 and 2014, the incarceration rate for Blacks dwarfs the rate of other groups, and is
over 3.5 times larger than the rate for Whites (Figure 26). Descriptive statistics on arrests and
incarceration partially reflect higher crime rates in minority communities; rigorous academic
research, however, finds that racial disparities persist in police interactions, arrests, and
sentencing, even after controlling for defendant and offense characteristics (Harris and Kearney
2014; Rehavi and Starr 2014; Truman and Langton 2015).


Figure 26:

Incarceration Rate Demographics, 1995-2014

Inmates per 100,000 Population

Incarceration Rate - 1990


Incarceration Rate - 2000


Incarceration Rate - 2014







Note: Rates include prison and jail inmates and are calculated within group.
Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Census, CEA Calculations.

A large body of literature in economics, sociology, psychology, and criminology finds that, for
similar offenses, Blacks and Hispanics face a higher probability of arrest and conviction as well as
harsher penalties. Controlled experiments reveal that implicit biases and stereotypes cause
strong associations between minority individuals and criminal behavior, and these beliefs could
impact decision-making in the criminal justice system and increase punishment severity for
minorities (e.g. Eberhardt et al. 2004). While studies show that Blacks and Hispanics are no more
likely to be found in possession of contraband than Whites, minority individuals are more likely
than Whites to be stopped and searched, and these tactics contribute to higher rates of arrest
for minority individuals (Anwar and Feng 2006; Antonovics and Knight 2009). Even after
controlling for arrest offense and defendant characteristics, prosecutors are 75 percent more
likely to charge Black defendants with offenses that carry mandatory minimums. Black
defendants are 24 percent more likely to be convicted if their trial has a jury that was chosen
from an all-white pool of eligible jurors, where eligibility is determined by random assignment of
jury duty (Anwar, Bayer, and Hjalmarsson 2012). Following conviction, Black defendants receive
longer sentences for similar offenses (Rehavi and Starr 2014). Given that minority defendants are
more likely to have had contact with the criminal justice system than whites, they are also more
likely to have a criminal record when charged with a new offense, and evidence of a criminal
history increases the severity of any new punishment.


Figure 27:
Adults that Have Ever Been to Prison, 1974-2001
Percent of Adult Population Group
White Male
Black Male
Hispanic Male
White Female


Black Female
Hispanic Female







Source: Bonczar (2003), Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Along with rising incarceration rates, the share of the adult population that has a history of prior
incarceration has also increased. Between 1974 and 2001, the proportion of the adult population
that had ever been to prison more than doubled to 2.7 percent of the population. Over this
period, the formerly imprisoned population increased for all demographic groups, with dramatic
increases for Black and Hispanic men of 91 and 235 percent respectively. By 2001, 1 in 6 Black
men had ever been to prison, up from 1 in 11 men in 1974. For women, overall rates were lower
but racial disparities were comparable to those of men; in 2001, 1 in 200 women had a history of
prior incarceration, but rates for Black women were more than 5.5 times the rate for White
women (Figure 27).
Using estimates based on historical trends in imprisonment, nearly a third of Black males and one
in six Hispanic males born in 2001 are expected serve time in prison in their lifetimes. The lifetime
imprisonment rate for this cohort is estimated to be 5.5 times higher for Black men than White
men. For women, 6 percent of Black women and 2 percent of Hispanic women born in 2001 are
estimated to serve time in prison during their lifetimes, relative to 1 percent of White women
(Figure 28).


Figure 28:
Projected Lifetime Chance of Serving Prison Time for
Individuals Born in 1974-2001

Percent of Population Group
White Male
Black Male
Hispanic Male


White Female
Black Female
Hispanic Female








Note: Ever incarcerated rates for birth cohorts are based on 2001 projections that use the
assumption that incarceration rates will follow 2001 trends in years following birth.
Source: Bonczar (2003), Bureau of Justice Statistics.

In addition to overrepresentation by minority groups, the incarcerated population is
disproportionately poor with low levels of educational attainment. In this population, individuals
are likely to have received public assistance, grown up in foster care, and experienced
homelessness (Figure 29). Available data show that approximately 65 percent of prisoners did
not complete high school and 14 percent have less than an 8th grade education, indicating that
they may have limited earning ability and face a high rate of indigence (Harlow 2003).24
Figure 28 also shows rates of a number of other health and social risk factors in the incarcerated
population. Substance abuse is a pervasive problem; 69 percent of the incarcerated population
are regular drug users and 65 percent regularly use alcohol, while a third of prisoners and jail
inmates had a parent that abused substances. 25 In addition, nearly a third of the incarcerated
population has a family member that has also been incarcerated. The incarcerated population is
also likely to experience traumatic abuse before entering custody; nearly 20 percent of prisoners
and jail inmates have been physically or sexually abused prior to being incarcerated. Women
involved in the justice system are more likely to have experienced traumatic abuse; over 50
percent of incarcerated women have been physically or sexually abused prior to incarceration
(James and Glaze 2006).

Of the proportion that have not completed high school, 28 percent of prisoners have a GED.
Statistics for this figure combine reported rates of characteristics for individuals in James and Glaze (2006). James
and Glaze (2006) provides rates split by mental health status and facility type (local jail, State prisons, and Federal
prisons). The rates shown in this chart are constructed as weighted averages from these sub-categories, using the
relative prevalence of mental health characteristics in each facility type and the proportion of the incarcerated
population in each facility type. Jail statistics are derived from 2002 survey responses, while prison statistics come
from a 2004 survey, and the total characteristic weighted averages account for this reporting year difference.



Figure 29:
Demographics of Incarcerated Population, 2002-2004
Percent of Incarcerated Population
Grew up in Foster Care


Ever Received Public Assistance


Family Member Ever Incarcerated


Parental Substance Abuse


Regular Alcohol Use


Regular Drug Use


Past Physical or Sexual Abuse


Homelessness in the Past Year


Mental Health Problem


10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80

Note: Statistics combine survey data from State and Federal prisoners in 2004 with Local Jail
inmates in 2002.
Source: James and Glaze (2006), Bureau of Justice Statistics, CEA Calculations.

Lastly, over half of individuals with a history of incarceration also have mental health problems.
In 2005, over half of the incarcerated population had a mental health problem, rates that greatly
exceed the 11 percent of individuals with mental illness in the general population (James and
Glaze 2006). More recent data from 2012 finds that 15 percent of prisoners and 26 percent of
jail inmates suffer from serious psychological distress (Beck 2015).
Beginning in the 1950s, deinstitutionalization of mental health facilities in the United States has
dramatically reduced the mental hospital inpatient population, which now is 5 times smaller than
the population of mentally ill individuals behind bars. However, recent economic research
suggests that transfers of the mentally ill from hospitals to prisons has played only a minor role
in overall incarceration growth, causing a 4 to 7 percent increase in the incarcerated population
(Raphael and Stoll 2013a).
Inmates with mental illness may be particularly vulnerable in a prison or jail setting; recent
studies show that individuals with serious psychological distress were 2 to 8 percent more likely
to be sexually victimized than other inmates while incarcerated (Beck et al. 2013). Mentally ill
inmates are also 10-15 percent more likely to have issues with drug and alcohol abuse than
inmates without mental health problems (James and Glaze 2006).



Costs and Benefits of Criminal Justice Policy from an Economic

From an economic perspective, the goal of an efficient criminal justice system is to maximize the
safety of citizens and minimize criminal activity while also limiting the direct and indirect costs of
criminal justice policies to individuals, communities and the economy. 26 Broadly, debates about
the criminal justice system can be framed as a comparison of the system’s societal benefits in
terms of reduced crime and its societal costs in terms of direct government spending and
collateral consequences for individuals, families and communities. Likewise, any reform should
offer an improvement to current practice, through increasing safety, rebuilding communities,
improving economic opportunity, or reducing expenditures or other social costs.
In this section, we review insights from economic research on crime and the criminal justice
system and organize the discussion based on the broad benefits and costs of criminal justice
policies. While criminal justice policies also raise many questions around humanitarian issues and
social justice, we focus only on economic aspects to develop a cost-benefit framework based on
economic research.

Costs of Crime to Victims and Society
The cost of crime is extensive, imposing burdens on victims, families and society. These costs
include not only direct monetary losses, such as stolen or destroyed property or medical costs,
but also other costs such as pain, suffering, trauma, fear, reduced quality of life or loss of life.
Crime may also have indirect costs at the community level, including reduced business
investment, lower property values, and declines in economic opportunity. Nonetheless, given the
large reductions across categories of crime over the last two decades, current crime costs are
lower than they have been historically.
The societal cost of crime in the United States likely totals hundreds of billions of dollars per year.
In order to capture the value of direct and indirect costs of crime, researchers have used a
number of approaches. These include itemized calculations (Miller, Cohen and Wiersema 1996;
Anderson 1999), jury awards (Cohen 1988), contingent valuations of an individual’s willingness
to pay to avoid a crime (Cohen, Rust, Steen and Tidd 2004), and estimating the statistical value
of life (Ashenfelter 2006). Given the variety of methods used and factors considered to evaluate
crime costs, estimates vary substantially, as is shown in Table 1 below.

Other goals of the criminal justice system include allowing for rehabilitation, expressing disapproval of certain
kinds of behavior, providing consistent penalties across demographic groups, and punishing individuals
appropriately for the crime committed.


Table 1:

Criminal Justice Policies and Crime Reduction Benefits
A central goal of our criminal justice system is to maintain the safety of citizens. Research on the
economics of crime has grown out of work by Gary Becker (1968) that conceptualizes criminal
agents as rational actors, where each individual weighs the benefits of criminal activity against
the costs of expected punishment and the availability of non-criminal outside options. Though
criminal acts may often lack a “rational” basis, this framework proposes that crime may be
reduced by decreasing the benefits associated with crime through altering criminal preferences,
increasing the costs of crime by raising the likelihood and severity of punishment, or increasing
the opportunity cost of crime by improving the outside options of potential offenders. In addition
to these behavioral levers, incarceration can also reduce crime more directly by removing
offenders from society and incapacitating individuals in prisons or jails.
In this section, we review economic research on the crime-reducing effects of police, criminal
sanctions, and policies that improve alternatives to criminal activity through raising levels of
employment, wages, and education. 27 This body of research finds that the crime reducing impact

In this literature, crime outcomes are measured as either crimes that are reported to the police, crimes that are
self-reported in surveys, or arrests. Most studies use crimes reported to police, both because this data is most
comprehensive and may be more reliable than self-reports of criminal behavior. Arrests are also often used as crime
outcomes, though arrests are not a direct reflection of crimes committed, because they are also a function of


of increasing incarceration is lower than the benefits that accrue from investments in police,
education, and jobs programs.
Incarceration and Crime Reduction

Criminal sanctions have the capacity to reduce crime through deterrence and incapacitation;
however, marginal increases in incarceration may have small and declining benefits. 28 Despite a
large expansion in the prison population over the last several decades, a large body of research
has generally found that the aggregate impact of incarceration on crime is modest and that it
declines as the prison population grows. Researchers who study crime and incarceration believe
that the true impact of incarceration on crime reduction is small, with a 10 percent increase in
incarceration decreasing crime by just 2 percent or less (Donohue 2009; Chalfin and McCrary
2014), though economic studies have found a range of estimates for the effect of incarceration
on crime (e.g. Levitt 1996; Johnson and Raphael 2012). 29 One reason experts believe that the
true crime-reducing impact of incarceration is small is that most studies do not account for
individuals incarcerated in Federal prisons or local jails, which could lead to an over-estimate of
the measured effect of incarceration (Donohue 2009). 30
Additional incarceration may be particularly ineffective in reducing crime when incarceration
rates are already high (Liedka, Piehl, and Useem 2006; Johnson and Raphael 2012). When
incarceration rates are high, further incarceration entails incapacitating offenders who are on
average lower risk, which means that their incarceration will yield fewer public safety benefits.
Thus, given the size of the U.S. incarcerated population, the aggregate crime-reducing impact of
increasing incarceration rates is likely to be minimal. In contrast, there is evidence that
incarceration has larger effects on crime outside of the United States, and this may be due in part
to lower incarceration rates abroad (e.g. Drago, Galbiati, and Vertova 2009; Bell, Jaitman, and
Machin 2013).
In practice, the effect of incarceration is difficult to measure because while incarceration may have the ability to
reduce crime, areas with higher levels of crime also tend to have higher levels of incarceration, making it difficult to
isolate the reduction effect when comparing crime and incarceration rates. This simultaneity or reverse causality
issue is not just a problem in measuring the impact of incarceration, but also in measuring the impact of any criminal
justice policy (such as police) that may be applied more heavily when crime rates rise. The research cited in this
report uses careful empirical approaches that address this measurement challenge.
Because of the simultaneity of incarceration and crime (as in policing), these studies have relied on using lags of
incarceration, simulated instruments and other methods to estimate the impact of higher incarceration rates on
It is likely that States with high State prison populations may also have high local jail populations and a high number
of Federal prisoners, meaning that State incarceration rates are positively related to Federal and local inmate
populations. If this is the case, omitting Federal and local variation in incarceration will attribute greater reductions
in crime to a State prison population that is lower than the true incarcerated population. This omitted variable bias
could lead to overestimates of the capacity of incarceration to reduce crime in this literature. This critique may be
applicable to other policy evaluations as well, leading to over-estimates of the impact of policies whenever they are
positively correlated with other crime control activities that may not be controlled for in a study.


Research on the impact of sentence length has found that longer sentences are unlikely to deter
prospective offenders or reduce targeted crime rates, and that incapacitation benefits decline as
an individual ages in prison. 31 Strikingly, the threat of a longer sentence does not deter
prospective youth offenders in the general population (Lee and McCrary 2005, 2009; Hjalmarsson
2009a). Lee and McCrary (2009) estimate juvenile arrest rates barely respond to increases in
expected sentence length at the age of majority; they find that a 10 percent increase in average
sentence length leads to a zero to 0.5 percent decrease in arrest rates.
A number of studies using state-level data find mixed evidence that repeat offender laws and
sentence enhancements reduce crime (e.g. Kessler and Levitt 1999; Kovandzic 2001; Webster,
Doob, and Zimring 2006). Using individual data, Helland and Tabarrok (2007) find that sentencing
enhancements in California can reduce criminal activity through deterrence, but that the
implementation costs of longer sentences likely outweigh their benefits.
At the same time, the incapacitation effects of a longer sentence depend on age and decline as
an individual gets older (Sampson and Laub 2004; Blumstein and Nakamura 2009). Below Figure
30 shows that arrests peak in early adulthood and taper in middle age. The relationship between
age and criminality suggests that incarceration has a smaller incapacitation benefit for older

One challenge in the literature on sentencing policy is that it is difficult to disentangle the different channels
through which sentences can affect crime. A treatment of a shorter sentence (relative to a longer sentence) means
that an offender will not be incapacitated in the future, so criminal behavior after release can be interpreted as a
“reverse” incapacitation effect.. At the same time, the experience of going to prison or serving a longer sentence
can alter an individual’s behavior after they are released, and this change in behavior can be interpreted as a
recidivism effect.


Figure 30:

Policies that adjust the certainty rather than the severity of punishment could have larger crimereducing effects (Donohue 2009). A study by Hawken and Kleiman (2009) finds that probationers
subject to frequent drug tests with immediate but brief incarceration penalties for violations
were over 70 percent less likely to test positive for drugs than probationers subject to more
infrequent drug tests with the threat of longer incarceration penalties.
More research is needed to understand the impact of other criminal sanctions, including
monetary sanctions and probation. While some economists support the use of monetary
sanctions as alternatives to harsher sanctions such as incarceration, the specific ways that these
policies are implemented in the United States often renders them less effective and raises
important humanitarian concerns, particularly that they unfairly disadvantage low-income
offenders. In one of the few studies on monetary sanctions, Bar-Ilan and Sacerdote (2004) find
that larger fines reduce traffic violations, though wealthier individuals are less responsive to
changes in fine amounts, a finding that supports the use of fines that are equitable and
proportional to income. Other researchers, typically focusing on uses of monetary sanctions
internationally that differ substantially from U.S. policies, have argued that monetary sanctions
could represent cost-effective alternatives to incarceration if they are executed equitably, with
consideration for an offender’s ability to pay, and if court administrators focus on strategies to
improve fine collection (Piehl and Williams 2011). There is evidence, however, that monetary
sanctions in the United States are inefficient tools to raise revenue and place a disproportionate
burden on poor individuals (CEA 2015b).


Incarceration and Recidivism

In the United States, over 600,000 prisoners are released each year and over 70 percent of
released prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years of release (Durose, Cooper, and Snyder 2014;
Carson 2015). Because criminal offending has large societal costs, understanding the ways that
particular penalties may affect re-offending is important to structuring criminal justice policy.
Emerging research suggests that incarceration increases re-offending relative to alternative
Incarceration could reduce re-offending if it serves to rehabilitate offenders, incapacitate the
most active offenders, or if the experience of prison deters future criminal activity. Alternatively,
incarceration could increase re-offending if it builds criminal expertise and limits post-release
employment opportunities, either through skill atrophy or labor market stigma. Scholars in
psychology and criminology have also proposed that incarceration could increase recidivism if it
elevates an offender’s feelings of resentment, strengthens personal identification as a
delinquent, or creates social stigma that contributes to feelings of alienation (Matsueda 1992;
Bernburg and Krohn 2003).
In line with these competing predictions, past research on the effect of incarceration on reoffending has found mixed results.32 Studies in economics have sometimes found that
incarceration and longer sentences could modestly reduce offending after release (Hjalmarsson
2009b). For example, an evaluation of a 2001 change in Maryland’s sentencing guidelines found
that an additional year incarcerated led to a decrease of 1.5 crimes per affected offender released
(Owens 2009). In a second study using data from Georgia, Kuziemko (2013) finds that longer
sentences are associated with lower re-offending rates, possibly due to the aging of inmates.
However, she also finds that “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which limit opportunities for early parole
release, significantly increase recidivism by dis-incentivizing inmates to exhibit model behavior
and participate in rehabilitation programming, behaviors which would be rewarded in a parole
However, a growing body of work has found that incarceration increases recidivism. This research
compares outcomes of defendants with similar characteristics and offenses and uses the random
assignment of defendants to judges to predict a defendant’s assigned sentence, based only on
the judge’s historical sentencing behavior. For instance, one recent study that uses highly
detailed data from Texas uses this design and finds that although initial incarceration prevents
crime through incapacitation, each additional sentence year causes an increase in future
offending that eventually outweighs the incapacitation benefit. Each additional sentence year
leads to a 4 to 7 percentage point increase in recidivism after release (Mueller-Smith 2015).
Durlauf and Nagin (2011) note that research on the crime-reducing effects of sentencing laws may confuse impacts
of recidivism, incapacitation and deterrence and this misinterpretation can overstate the positive impacts of longer


Similarly, a recent study exploiting random judge assignment in Chicago finds that juvenile
detention increases the likelihood of re-offending after release by 22 to 26 percent and reduces
the probability of earning a high school degree by 13 percent (Aizer and Doyle 2013). Using data
on drug offenders in Washington D.C., another study found that incarceration may increase rearrest rates relative to probation (Green and Winik 2010). 33
These findings are consistent with research that finds that offenders build criminal connections
while in residential facilities, and are more likely to recidivate given their exposure to other
offenders (Chen and Shapiro 2007; Bayer, Hjalmarsson and Pozen 2009). Finally, there may be a
psychological component to longer sentences; in a comparison of offenders that serve equal
sentences, a 10 percent increase in sentence expectation increased recidivism by 1.2 percent
(Bushway and Owens 2013).
Police and Crime Reduction

Police are a critical component of crime control and may reduce crime through deterrence,
arrests, and building community trust. Economic research has consistently shown that police
reduce crime in communities, and most estimates show that investments in police reduce crime
more effectively than either increasing incarceration or sentence severity. Yet understanding
how policing affects crime can be difficult because communities may react to rising crime levels
by stepping up policing, making it difficult to separate cause from effect. 34 Several rigorous
studies have addressed the problem of the joint determination of police and crime by measuring
the crime-reducing impact of police hiring changes caused by external factors unrelated to local
crime levels (e.g. Klick and Tabarrok 2005; Evans and Owens 2007; DeAngelo and Hansen 2014).
This research shows that police reduce crime on average, and estimates of the impact of a 10
percent increase in police hiring lead to a crime decrease of approximately 3 to 10 percent,
depending on the study and type of crime. Owens (2011) finds that larger police forces do not
reduce crime through simply arresting more people and increasing incapacitation, instead,
investments in police are likely to make communities safer through deterring crime.
There is also some evidence on the efficacy of various policing practices. For example, “hot-spots”
policing, a strategy that intensifies policing in high crime locations within a city, may have the
capacity to reduce crime with minimal displacement of crime to new areas (Braga, Papachristos
and Hureau 2014). In contrast, research on “broken windows” policing, a strategy that focuses
In this study, the authors found no statistical difference between the re-arrest rates of offenders that were
incarcerated versus those that were sentenced to probation. However, because the authors begin measuring
recidivism at the time of sentencing, individuals with prison terms have relatively less time in which they could be
arrested and were arrested more in a shorter period of time after release.
As with incarceration, simultaneity and reverse causality is an obstacle to measuring the impact of police on crime.
The studies cited in this report address this measurement challenge using careful empirical approaches.


on high levels of enforcement for low-level crimes, has found generally weak crime-reducing
effects (Harcourt and Ludwig 2007; Caetano and Maheshri 2013). A third category of policing
strategies, “problem-oriented” policing, that approaches a particular crime problem through a
combination of prevention, community outreach and engagement, has been more difficult to
evaluate given a high level of variation across initiatives (Weisburd et al. 2010). Policing presence
as well as specific policing strategies can increase the likelihood of apprehension for a given
offense, and this increase in the certainty of punishment can deter individuals from engaging in
criminal behavior in the first place (Nagin, Solow, and Lum 2015).
While research in economics finds substantial national effects of police hiring on crime reduction,
it is important to emphasize that these average effects may not apply to specific jurisdictions.
More research is needed to understand how to best improve the effectiveness of police and build
constructive relationships between communities and law enforcement (Gill, Weisburd, and Telep
2016). Model policing tactics are marked by trust, transparency, and collaborations between
police and community stakeholders, but more work is needed to identify and replicate best
practices. Calls from citizens, policy-makers, and advocates to address issues related to police
use of force, protection of constitutional rights, and police militarization stress the need to invest
in policing strategies that both build trust and keep communities safe (Center for Constitutional
Rights 2012; Kindy, Fisher, and Tate 2015; Dansky 2016). To further these goals, investments in
police hiring should be accompanied with support for community policing and an emphasis on
identifying effective policing strategies through evaluation.
Employment, Wage, and Education Policy, and Crime Reduction

Economic models of criminal behavior underscore another way that public policy can reduce
crime: through establishing viable and meaningful alternatives to criminal behavior. Crime and
poverty are correlated and criminal behavior is often motivated by a lack of economic
opportunity. If legitimate employment opportunities with sufficient wages are available, then the
necessity and relative attractiveness of criminal activity will decline. Likewise, investments in
education can reduce crime by improving future labor market opportunities and by altering the
propensity of children to engage in risky behaviors, even though they are not specifically
designed to reduce crime. While a range of policies with different approaches, scalability, and
implementation costs can be used to support employment, wage growth, and educational
attainment, policies that constructively achieve these goals have large impacts on crime
To better understand the relationship between outside options and criminal activity, researchers
have studied the effects of unemployment, business cycles and wages on crime. Declines in
unemployment rates reduce crime levels, and crime is particularly sensitive to employment
opportunities for low-skilled men (e.g. Raphael and Winter-Ebmer 2001; Ihlanfeldt 2007).


Similarly, evidence suggests that recessions can lead to cyclical increases in crime (Bushway,
Cook, and Phillips 2010).
Wages measure the opportunity cost of crime more directly by quantifying the earnings an
individual can obtain in the legal labor market, and studies have found that wage increases
significantly decrease crime. Higher wages for low-skilled workers reduce both property and
violent crime, as well as crime among adolescents (e.g. Grogger 1998; Doyle, Ahmed and Horn
1999). The impact of wages on crime is substantial; Gould, Weinberg, and Mustard (2002)
estimate that a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men results in
approximately a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates. 35
Investments in education can reduce crime by expanding employment opportunities, and
thereby improving non-crime alternatives. A number of studies have found that increases in
compulsory schooling requirements reduce criminal activity by occupying students in school
while they are adolescents (Anderson 2014) and by improving the long-term educational
attainment and labor market outcomes of individuals (Lochner and Moretti 2004; Oreopoulos
and Salvanes 2011). 36 The research on education and crime has found broad and meaningful
effects; Lochner and Moretti (2004) estimate that a 10 percent increase in high school graduation
rates results in 9 percent decline in criminal arrest rates.
Improvements in school quality can also have large returns in reducing criminal activity through
both improving labor market outcomes and altering student behavior (Deming 2009a). For
example, students who won school choice lotteries to attend high-achieving schools in Chicago
were 60 percent less likely to report being arrested (Cullen, Jacob, and Levitt 2006). Likewise,
reductions in school segregation have been shown to reduce crime in part by improving student
outcomes (Weiner, Lutz, and Ludwig 2009).
Targeted education and jobs programs are also effective tools to prevent crime. By enhancing
non-cognitive and behavioral skills and improving educational attainment, preschool education
initiatives can have large crime-reducing effects (Heckman et al. 2010; CEA 2016). Interventions
also have high returns for children and adolescents; for example, multiple evaluations have found
As in studies of police and incarceration, it is difficult to identify a causal relationship between economic conditions
and crime outcomes. The studies cited in this report do an excellent job of uncovering causal relationships through
both panel data and instrumental variables techniques, which use external sources of variation to predict changes
in economic conditions that are unlikely to be otherwise related to changes in crime rates. Examples include
measuring changes in employment through changes in oil prices and prime defense contracts (Raphael and WinterEbmer 2001), and measuring changes in wages and employment through changes in industrial composition and
technological change (Gould, Weinberg, and Mustard 2002).
Research that measures the contemporaneous impact of increasing the number of required school days finds that
daily schooling incapacitates property crime but increases violent crime, possibly through increasing negative peer
interactions (Jacob and Lefgren 2003; Luallen 2006).


that an in-school cognitive behavioral therapy intervention for young men in Chicago significantly
reduced arrests among participants (Heller et al. 2015). Lastly, summer youth employment can
decrease criminal behavior of disadvantaged youth; a study of a summer jobs program in New
York found that it reduced the probability of incarceration by 10 percent and decreased the
mortality rates by 20 percent (Heller 2014; Gelber, Isen, and Kessler forthcoming).

Direct Government Spending on the Criminal Justice System
The U.S. criminal justice system is expansive in its goals, functions, and activities, and spans local,
State, and Federal Government levels. Given the complex and interconnected structure of the
criminal justice system, decomposing expenditures that correspond to particular initiatives is
challenging. Though evaluation of specific policies is beyond the scope of this report, the broad
discussion of criminal justice spending in this section provides motivation for reform
opportunities that are capable of reducing costs while prioritizing safety.
Between 1993 and 2012, real total criminal justice spending increased by 74 percent, from $158
billion to $274 billion. 37 Approximately 50 percent of this spending is attributable to local
governments, 30 percent is spent by States and 20 percent is spent by the Federal Government.
Police are the largest outlay with real spending of $130 billion dollars in 2012, followed by $83
billion in corrections spending and approximately $60 billion in judicial and legal government
spending (Figure 31). 38
Figure 31:

All dollar figures in this section are in 2015 dollars, adjusted using the CPI.
Total criminal justice system expenditures do not include public spending on other categories of programs that
may reduce crime, including funding for education and economic development. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 19932012. “Justice Expenditure and Employment Extracts” Series. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.


On a per capita basis, real criminal justice spending was $872 dollars per person in the United
States in 2012. Real per capita spending by States varies, with a high of $1,488, in Washington
D.C. and a low of $407 in Indiana.39 State corrections expenditures represent 7 percent of total
State general funds on average, and 11 States spent more on corrections than on higher
education in 2013 (Mitchell and Leachman 2014).
Recent survey data suggest that yearly average costs of confinement range from $14,000 to
$60,000 per adult prisoner and $40,000 to $350,000 per juvenile detainee across States
(Henrichson and Delaney 2012; Justice Policy Institute 2014). However, statistics on average costs
mask the large fixed costs to building and operating a prison. Given that prisons are near capacity,
adding additional prisoners may necessitate building additional facilities to avoid creating
dangerous conditions of overcrowding. Given this environment, the direct cost of admitting a
new prisoner likely exceeds any savings from releasing a prisoner. Expenditures for pretrial jail
beds, a large portion of which are used for individuals unable to pay financial bail, are estimated
to be $9 billion, or 11 percent of total spending on corrections (National Symposium on Pretrial
Justice 2011). 40 In contrast to spending on incarceration, the average yearly salary expense per
police officer was approximately $60,000 in 2014, similar to the yearly cost of a prison bed
(Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016).
While spending on the court system has increased in recent decades, public resources for legal
aid has waned, and lower levels of support for indigent defendants may contribute to the
likelihood of incarceration. Between 1999 and 2007 public defender caseloads increased by 20
percent while staffing increased by only 4 percent, resulting in average caseloads of over 350
cases per defender per year (Langton and Farole 2010). 41 Despite the fact that over 5 million
cases require indigent defense each year, States allocate only 10 percent of their judicial and
legal budgets to legal aid, or approximately $2 billion annually (Langton and Farole 2010;
Herberman and Kyckelhahn 2015).
These descriptive statistics do not imply that criminal justice spending is not justified or
constructive. The demands and needs of criminal justice systems vary across States and cities
within the United States. However, the large and increasing costs of the U.S. criminal justice
system do show that enforcement has intensified over time and suggest that adjustments to
current policy could provide real savings.
One way to benchmark indicators of criminal justice spending is to compare the United States to
other countries. The United States had the largest prison population in the world, and an
incarceration rate of approximately 700 prisoners per 100,000 residents, more than 4 times the
world average in 2015 (Walmsley 2016). To accommodate the high rate of imprisonment, in
Pretrial bed estimate is referenced against 2012 spending figures. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). 2012. “Justice
Expenditure and Employment Extracts.” Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
These statistics on public defenders are based on survey estimates for a subset of reporting states. Average
caseload figures use statistics for all 50 states and the District of Columbia, while increases in caseloads and staffing
are generalized from a sample of 17 states.


2007, the United States employed corrections officers at a rate over 2.5 times the world. At the
same time, the United States employed over 30 percent fewer police officers per capita than
other countries. With respect to judicial personnel, the United States’ employment rates of
prosecutors and judges are close to rates around the world (Figure 32; Harrendorf, Heiskanen
and Malby 2010).
Figure 32:

Collateral Consequences of the Criminal Justice System
The costs of criminal justice policies are not limited to direct government expenditures.
Individuals who obtain a criminal record or serve a prison sentence often face difficult
circumstances when they return to society. Having a criminal record or a history of incarceration
is a barrier to success in the labor market, and limited employment or depressed wages can stifle
an individual’s ability to become self-sufficient. Beyond earnings, criminal sanctions can have
negative consequences for individual health, debt, transportation, housing, and food security.
Further, criminal sanctions create financial and emotional stresses that destabilize marriages and
have adverse consequences for children. Lastly, at the community level, collateral consequences
exacerbate inequality and can deteriorate trust in government.
Collateral Consequences in the Labor Market

An estimated 70 million Americans—or roughly a third of the adult population—have some type
of criminal record, and criminal records limit employment options in many industries and
occupations (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2012; Rodriguez and Emsellem 2011; Vallas and Deitrich
2015). 42 Recent surveys find that over 70 percent of employers conduct criminal background
checks, roughly double the rate during the 1990s (Holzer, Raphael and Stoll, 2006; Society for
This group includes those with charges that were dismissed or did not result in conviction, as well as those who
have completed their legal obligation to serve time in incarceration.


Human Resource Management 2012). Individuals with criminal records are frequently barred
from obtaining occupational licenses; according to the American Bar Association, there are over
1,000 mandatory license exclusions for individuals with records of misdemeanors and nearly
3,000 exclusions for felony records (American Bar Association 2016).43
Employers could prefer not to hire individuals with records because they may perceive prior
offenses as a predictor of lower productivity, dishonesty, or future criminality. Additionally,
employers may be liable for criminal actions committed by employees through negligent hiring
law suits (Raphael 2011). However, research suggests that employers who avoid applicants with
criminal records overestimate the link between criminal histories and workplace productivity or
the propensity to reoffend (Kurlychek, Brame, and Bushway 2007; Roberts et al. 2007; Blumstein
and Nakamura 2009). Further, expanding the applicant pool available to employers could
increase the quality of job matches, or the fit of an applicant’s skills to the employer’s needs,
improving the productivity and profits of firms.
Because the incarcerated population is disproportionately poor and has low education levels, on
average, labor market attachment is likely low for this group, even prior to conviction. Estimates
from different data sources suggest that as little as 10 percent of this group have positive preincarceration earnings and that real pre-incarceration yearly earnings range from $3,000 to
$28,000 (James and Glaze 2006; Kling 2006; Sabol 2007; Donohue 2009). Time spent incarcerated
results in a loss of any earnings, and this puts additional strain on families that already have
limited resources. A recent paper suggests that the probability that a family is in poverty
increases by 38 percent while a father is incarcerated (Johnson 2009).
The negative employment and wage effects of labor market stigma extend beyond the formerly
incarcerated population to the broader group of individuals with criminal records (Raphael 2011).
Analysis that compares individual earnings before and after an arrest suggests that arrests can
decrease earnings and employment (Grogger 1995). Furthermore, in a recent audit experiment,
researchers randomly assigned a criminal record to otherwise identical job applications and
found that applicants with criminal records were 50 percent less likely to receive an interview
request or job offer, and differences were larger for Black applicants (Figure 33; Pager 2003;
Pager, Western, and Sugie 2009).

Beyond their implications for individuals with criminal records, occupational licensing policies also affect workers’
access to jobs more generally, their wages, and their ability to move across State lines, as well as consumers’ access
to goods and services. More than one-quarter of U.S. workers require a license to do their jobs (CEA et al. 2015).



Figure 33:

Likewise, research suggests that there are material labor market consequences to having any
spell of incarceration (Nagin and Waldfogel 1998; Western 2002). Even after controlling for a
broad range of characteristics like education and demographics, the formerly incarcerated earn
substantially less than other workers—on the order of 10 to 40 percent less (Geller, Garfinkel,
and Western 2006; The Pew Charitable Trusts 2010). Additionally, States with more flexible labor
market conditions for individuals with criminal records may have lower recidivism rates (Hall,
Harger and Stansel 2015).
Longer incarceration sentences may also be associated with greater skill loss and higher costs to
re-integrating in the labor market, though these costs may be partially offset by participation in
rehabilitation or correctional education programs (Kling 2006; Landersø 2015). A recent paper
using variation in random judge assignment in Texas finds large negative impacts of sentence
length on employment; in this setting, a one year increase in sentence length reduces
employment by 4 percentage points and reduces earnings by approximately 30 percent after
release (Mueller-Smith 2015). Individuals that cannot find sustainable employment given labor
market barriers to reentry may also have a higher risk of re-offending.
Because Blacks are more likely to be incarcerated than Whites, the labor market consequences
of conviction have broader implications for income inequality across demographic groups. The
high rate of Black incarceration has contributed to lower labor force participation among Blacks
and slower average wage growth relative to Whites (Grogger 1992; Holzer, Offner, and Sorenson
2005; Neal and Rick 2014). While the Black-White wage gap converged by 13 percent between
1950 and 1990 for employed men, accounting for non-employed men, including those
incarcerated, reduces these gains to only 3 percent (Chandra 2000). Incarceration has been a key
driver of growth in the population of non-employed Black men; in 1980, 11 percent of nonemployed Black men were incarcerated but by 1999, this proportion had risen to 33 percent
(Western and Pettit 2005).

Collateral Consequences for Health, Financial Stability, Transportation, Housing, and Food

The collateral consequences of criminal sanctions are not limited to employment, and can include
negative impacts on health, debt, transportation, housing, and food security. These impacts
amount to serious disadvantages for individuals with criminal records or a history of
Incarcerated individuals face substantial health risks. When prisons are at capacity or
overcrowded, the risk of inmate injury, sexual victimization, disease transmission and death can
increase. A recent study finds that court orders to reduce crowding in State prisons led, on
average, to a reduction of six prisoner deaths per year (Boylan and Mocan 2013). Harsh prison
conditions are not limited to crowding, so-called “supermax” incarceration and solitary
confinement have been linked to a range of mental health conditions, violent behaviors, and
increased recidivism (Haney 2003; Lovell, Johnson, and Cain 2007; Mears and Bales 2009). These
combined health risks lead to health worse health outcomes for the formerly incarcerated later
in life (Massoglia 2008).
Inmates in prisons and jails are also much more likely to be sexually victimized; 3.7 percent of
men and 8.5 percent of women experience sexual abuse while incarcerated, high rates compared
to estimates of annual sexual assault incidence in the general population of 0.0001 percent of
men and 0.004 percent of women (Beck et al. 2013; Planty et al. 2013). Though many sexual
abuse incidents in prisons involve other inmates as perpetrators, over half of reported sexual
victimizations are perpetrated by prison and jail staff (Beck et al. 2013). Beyond raising
humanitarian concerns, harsh prison conditions do not deter individuals from offending after
release (Chen and Shapiro 2007).
Meanwhile, monetary penalties and financial bail can create and exacerbate financial hardship.
Monetary penalties include fines, which are punishments for an offense, and fees, which are
itemized payments for criminal justice functions charged after a conviction. These sanctions can
apply to individuals with even minor offenses, like traffic tickets (CEA 2015b). Tens of millions of
individuals in the United States have been assessed fines or fees and the use of monetary
sanctions has increased substantially over time, despite the fact that the collection of criminal
justice debt is often inefficient (Beckett and Harris 2011). Individuals can also be subject to flat
surcharges for collecting monetary penalties that range from $25 to $500 dollars as well as high
interest rates and processing fees of up to 40 percent (Beckett, Harris, and Evans 2008; Diller
2010). Because monetary sanctions are typically assigned without consideration for an
individual’s ability to pay, these penalties can create onerous debt and obstacles to reentry for
poor individuals. In some cases, a failure to pay fines and fees can even result in jail time (Diller,
Greene, and Jacobs 2009).


Concurrent with the increase in fines and fees, available data suggests that the use of bail bonds
has also increased by more than 130 percent over the past two decades. 44 Even relatively low
bail payments generate substantial obstacles for poor defendants, and financial bail policies
often detain the poorest rather than the most dangerous defendants (Baradaran and McIntyre
2012). In New York City in 2010, approximately 80 percent of defendants could not make bail at
amounts less than $500 (Phillips 2012). Though the majority of bail payments are returned to
defendants upon appearing in court, patching together funds to post bail or pay a bail bondsman
can create significant financial hardship for families, as fees for using bail bondsmen can exceed
10 percent (Neal 2012).
Having a criminal record can also directly affect housing security after release. Though the U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) does not have a blanket prohibition of
individuals with criminal records residing in public housing, in practice, each local Public Housing
Authority (PHA) has the latitude to set its own criminal record policies (HUD 2015). Though
restrictions vary by PHA, they are almost always more strict than Federal guidelines, often barring
individuals with criminal records from obtaining housing assistance. Individuals with limited
resources and few housing options may be denied public housing assistance for low-level
nonviolent offenses, including prior alcohol and drug use (Curtis, Garlington, and Schottenfeld
2013). In some cases, housing restrictions for individuals with criminal records can ultimately lead
to homelessness (Rodriguez and Brown 2003). Reentry barriers contribute to low housing
security after prison; the average parolee in Michigan moved 2.6 times in the two years following
prison (Harding, Morenoff, and Herbert 2013). Individuals with a history of mental illness and
addiction face greater challenges in housing security; research on released prisoners in Boston
finds that this population was up to 50 percent more likely to have temporary or marginal housing
6 months after release (Western et al. 2014).
Beyond restrictions to housing assistance, a criminal record also restricts access to important
safety net programs that provide much-needed support for lower-income individuals, including
food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP)) and welfare assistance (Temporary
Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)) under Federal law. Though many States have overridden
Federal restrictions to allow access to these benefits, individuals with a felony drug record are
fully or partially excluded from SNAP benefits in 30 States and TANF benefits in 36 States (Beitsch
2015). For poor individuals, these restrictions can create reentry barriers to obtaining the most
basic necessities.
In jurisdictions across the United States, a number of offenses and infractions can also result in
the loss of a driver’s license, and this loss of transportation may make it difficult to maintain
employment. Though most driver’s license suspensions and revocations result from driving
offenses, the American Bar Association estimates that 181 State rules and statutes suspend or
revoke a driver’s license for a non-driving offense (American Bar Association 2016). In 46 States,
an individual’s driver’s license may be revoked for failure to comply with a child support order,
Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1990-2009. “Felony Defendants in Large Urban Counties” Series. Department of
Justice, Washington, D.C.



which may result from a lack of resources (FindLaw 2016). Furthermore, losing a driver’s license
may also be used as a penalty for failure to pay criminal justice debt (Bannon, Nagrecha, and
Diller 2010).
Collateral Consequences for Families, Communities, and Minority Groups

The collateral consequences of criminal sanctions are not limited to individuals, but can have
ramifications for families and communities. Obstacles in the labor market for individuals with a
criminal record can put a strain on family resources and contribute to broader income inequality.
Meanwhile, the stresses of incarceration can increase the likelihood of divorce and have negative
impacts on children.
Because incarceration secludes individuals from their families and communities, it decreases the
likelihood of marriage and increase the likelihood of divorce. Young offenders face lower odds of
marrying while incarcerated, potentially permanently decreasing their likelihood of marrying and
forming a family (Raphael 2006a). Likewise, prolonged separation between spouses while a
husband or wife is incarcerated increases the likelihood of divorce (Massoglia, Remster, and King
Parental incarceration likely has high costs to children. More than 5 million children have a parent
who is currently incarcerated or has been incarcerated in the past (Murphey and Cooper 2015).
Over half of all prisoners are parents, and the number of parents in prisons has increased sharply
along with the overall rise in incarceration. The rise in imprisonment of parents has proportionally
increased the number of children with a parent in prison; in 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics
estimated that 1.7 million children had a parent in prison, though other research estimates are
as high as 2.7 million children (Figure 34; Glaze and Maruschak 2008; The Pew Charitable Trusts
2010). In a reflection of the demographics of the incarcerated population, 1 percent of White
children have a parent in prison compared to 7 percent of Black children and 2 percent of Hispanic
children (Glaze and Maruschak 2008). Furthermore, it appears that the incidence of parental
incarceration may fall more heavily on those imprisoned for relatively lower risk and nonviolent
crimes. By offense category, individuals imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes or public order
crimes are 20 percent more likely to be parents than individuals in prison for violent or property
crimes (Glaze and Maruschak 2008).


Figure 34:

Parental incarceration is a strong risk factor for a number of adverse outcomes, including
antisocial and violent behavior, mental health problems, school dropout, and unemployment
(Murray and Farrington 2008). In its 2012 report to the Attorney General, the National Task Force
on Children Exposed to Violence found that traumatic events, including parental arrest and
incarceration increases the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder in children (Listenbee et al.
2012). Researchers have found that these effects extend to child behavior outcomes; Wildeman
(2010), for instance, finds that paternal incarceration is associated with higher levels of physical
aggression among boys as young as five years old. Similarly, Johnson (2009) finds that parental
incarceration is associated with behavioral problems in children, and that these effects are
largest if the parent is incarcerated while the child is a teenager. Finally, a recent paper using
Swedish data finds that children of fathers who have been incarcerated are more likely to be
incarcerated themselves. They find that the intergenerational transmission of crime may be
partly explained by differences in parental education and parenting behaviors (Hjalmarsson and
Lindquist 2012).
In addition to impacts on families, the collateral consequences of the criminal justice system are
concentrated in poor and minority communities, and this has implications for economic and
social inequality. Moreover, the outsized involvement of poor and minority residents in the
criminal justice system can magnify collateral consequences at the community level and
contribute to distrust in government. In neighborhoods that are primarily poor and have high
proportions of minority residents, collateral consequences for individual employment, family
stability and child well-being can compound other economic disadvantages and deteriorate
community trust in government and the criminal justice system. In recent years, high-profile
protests in response to police use of force in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and Baltimore
provide evidence that communities are frustrated with many aspects of the criminal justice
system (Kang 2015). Relative to Whites, Blacks and Hispanics that reported being stopped by
police in street or traffic stops were significantly less likely to view the stop as legitimate (Langton
and DuRose 2013).

Costs and Benefits of Criminal Justice Policies
Weighing the costs and benefits of criminal justice policy is context-specific, and depends on the
population affected and the reform alternatives available. The benefits of criminal justice policies
include the potential to increase safety and minimize the direct and indirect cost of crime, while
the costs of policies include direct government expenditures and the collateral consequences of
criminal sanctions.
Several economists have performed formal cost-benefit calculations of criminal justice policies.
Given the small size of the marginal impact of incarceration on crime, most cost-benefit
calculations find that the costs of incarceration and sentencing policy outweigh the benefits in
the United States, even though many of these calculations do not consider the added indirect
costs related to collateral consequences. In contrast, several economic studies have determined
that investments in police and education are cost-effective and have large net benefits. Table 2
summarizes the findings of cost-benefit analyses of U.S. criminal justice policies, separated by
policy area.
Table 2:


Cost-benefit analyses of incarceration weigh the direct costs of incarcerating an individual against
the social value of crimes that may have been averted due to incarceration. Lofstrom and Raphael
(2013) examine a 2011 policy change in California that resulted in the realignment of 27,000 State
prisoners to county jails or parole. They find that realignment had no impact on violent crime,
but that an additional year of incarceration is associated with a decrease of 1 to 2 property
crimes, with effects strongest for motor vehicle theft. Applying estimates of the societal cost of
crime, the authors calculate that while the cost of a year of incarceration is $51,889 per prisoner
in California, the societal value of the corresponding reduction in motor vehicle thefts is only
$11,783, yielding a loss of $40,106 per prisoner. Notably, this net loss per prisoner would be
larger if the study considered the additional costs of collateral consequences, such as lost
earnings or potential increases in re-offending due to incarceration. These estimates highlight
the fact that there are more cost-effective ways of reducing crime than incarceration, such as
investing in law enforcement, education, and policies that expand economic opportunity.
In contrast to studies of incarceration and sentencing, research shows that investments in police
have high returns. In a study of the impact of a mass layoff of highway troopers in Oregon,
DeAngelo and Hansen (2014) found that traffic fatalities and non-fatal injuries significantly
increased, due to a greater prevalence of dangerous driving and drunk driving. The estimates in
this paper suggest that the state trooper salary cost required to save a life is $309,000, which is
very low compared to estimates of the statistical value of life, which range from $1 million to $10
million (e.g. Viscusi 2000; Cohen et al. 2004).
Similarly, the cost-effectiveness of education as an intervention to reduce crime is clear. Lochner
and Moretti (2004) conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the effect of increasing the high school
graduation rate on crime and arrest rates. Comparing costs and benefits in 1990, they estimate
that while the yearly per pupil cost of secondary school is $6,000, the societal benefit from
reducing crime is $1,170-$2,100 per additional male graduate, including reductions in victim
costs, property damages, and incarceration costs. When these benefits are considered alongside
an $8,040 increase in annual income from a high school degree, the benefits of an additional high
school graduate are tremendous, amounting to over $160,000 in discounted value per graduate
(Lochner and Moretti 2004; CEA Calculations). 45 In aggregate, the authors calculate that a 1
percent increase in the total high school graduation rate generates a $1.4 billion benefit due to
reductions in crime rates.
The cost-effectiveness of a policy also depends on the population affected. For the most part,
economic studies of the impacts of criminal justice policies have focused on the total average
effect of a policy across all types of individuals and offenses. However, the direct costs and
collateral consequences of incarceration are likely more important for low-risk offenders, a group
which may include non-violent drug offenders and older offenders that have already served long


This calculation assumes a 30 year work career per graduate and a discount rate of 3 percent.


Applying an economic lens is not the only tool available to evaluate the criminal justice system,
but it can be a useful one. The evidence reviewed in this section highlights the substantial costs
of current criminal justice policies and a strong body of research finding that the costs of several
criminal justice policies likely outweigh their benefits. While research provides mixed evidence
on whether incarceration deters crime, it offers unanimous findings that alternative policies like
increasing educational attainment or the number of police effectively decrease crime rates.
These policies typically have a much larger impact and can provide a more cost-effective
approach without the negative humanitarian costs of incarceration policies. Criminal justice
policies retain an important role in promoting public safety; however, the substantial research
reviewed in this section suggests that current criminal justice policies need reform.


To weigh the relative crime-reducing benefits of different policies, CEA conducted a “back-of-the-envelope”
cost-benefit analysis of three policies: increasing the prison population, expanding the police force, and raising
the minimum wage. In each calculation, CEA considered only the relative potential of these policies to reduce
crime and did not consider their impacts on other outcomes. In the case of incarceration, for example, collateral
consequences would further reduce the total benefits of this policy relative to the estimates below.
In assessing each of these policy changes we bound the policy’s impact on crime drawing on estimates from
leading studies. We then translate these crime reductions into dollars using estimates of the social cost of crime
from the economics literature. For the social cost of crime, we use a central estimate from the literature of
$33,000 per crime, which subsumes the varying costs of different types of crime but facilitates straightforward
and transparent calculations.1
For incarceration and police, CEA considered the impact of spending an additional $10 billion dollars per year
on each policy, which translates to a 12 percent increase in corrections spending and an 8 percent increase in
police spending. We then assume that additional spending is devoted entirely to increasing the incarcerated
population and police hiring, respectively. Applying crime reduction effects and social cost of crime estimates
from the economics literature, we find that a $10 billion dollar increase in incarceration would decrease crime
rates by 1 to 4 percent (or 55,000 to 340,000 crimes annually) and lead to a societal benefit ranging from –$8
billion to $1 billion—although as noted the societal benefits are likely somewhat lower because these numbers
do not include collateral consequences of incarceration like its effects on future earnings of prisoners or their
families. The same spending on police would decrease crime rates by 5 to 16 percent (or 440,000 to 1.5 million
crimes annually) and lead to a societal benefit of $4 billion to $38 billion (Figure 35).2
Figure 35:


Next, we consider the impact of increasing the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2020. As discussed above, wage
increases can reduce crime by providing viable and sustainable employment alternatives to criminal activity.
Using estimates from Gould, Weinberg, and Mustard (2002) that relate crime to changes in wages for non-college
educated men, we find that increasing the minimum wage to $12 per hour would decrease crime rates by 3 to 5
percent (or 250,000 to 510,000 crimes annually) and lead to a societal benefit of $8 billion to $17 billion (Figure
Figure 36:

The societal cost of crime estimate is drawn from literature described in Table 1.
impact on crime of spending additional resources on policing or incarceration was determined by applying conservative
estimates from high quality studies. Because the impacts of policing and incarceration tend to vary by crime, we use the lowest
and highest estimates across crimes for each policy change to bound the potential effect. Estimates of the crime reduction
effects of a one percent increase in the incarcerated population range from a 0.05 to 0.3 percent and for policing range from
0.3 to 1 percent. As $10 billion of increased spending translates into 12 percent more spending on incarceration and 8 percent
more spending on policing, such spending increases would reduce crime by 1 to 4 percent (56,614 to 339,685 crimes) and 5
to 16 percent (442,843 to 1,476,143 crimes), respectively. Given a social cost of crime of $32,729, we determine that $10
billion dollars in additional incarceration spending would yield social benefits of -$8 billion to $1 billion, while the same amount
of spending on police hiring would yield social benefits of $4 billion to $38 billion.
The incarceration elasticity range used draws on the following studies: Spelman 2000, 2005; Liedka, Piehl, and Useem 2006;
Donohue 2009; Johnson and Raphael 2012; Chalfin and McCrary 2014.
The police elasticity range used draws on the following studies: McCrary 2002; Klick and Tabarrok 2005; Evans and Owens
2007; Lin 2009; Shi 2009; Chalfin and McCrary 2013, 2014; DeAngelo and Hansen 2014.
3 The impact of a minimum wage increase on the wages of non-college educated men was determined using wage data from
the March Current Population Survey and deflating a 2020 minimum wage of $12 back to 2016 dollars using the Consumer
Price Index. The impact of crime was determined using a range of elasticities of -1 to -2 relating wages for non-college
educated men to reductions in crime, drawn from Gould, Weinberg, and Mustard (2002). These estimates translate to an
estimated reduction in crime by 3 to 5 percent (254,967 to 509,933 crimes) given the 3 percent increase in average wages for
non-college educated men that would result from this minimum wage increase. We assume such a minimum wage increase
would have no employment impacts, with an employment elasticity of 0.1 the benefits would be somewhat lower.

2 The



Taking the Next Step: Promising Areas for Reform and
Administration Action

Acting on a strong body of research demonstrating the negative impacts of our current criminal
justice policies and more effective alternatives, President Obama has advocated evidence-based
criminal justice reform that works to ameliorate the long-term causes of crime, improve public
safety at present, and help those with criminal justice involvement re-integrate into their
communities. The 2017 Budget proposes the 21st Century Justice Initiative, a $5 billion
investment of $500 million per year over 10 years. The Initiative will focus on reducing crime,
reversing practices that have led to unnecessarily long sentences and unnecessary incarceration,
and building community trust. President Obama has laid out the three key areas for reform: the
community, the courtroom, and the cell block. Community reforms such as investments in
education can reduce involvement with the criminal justice system, while community policing
and enhanced police transparency can improve community safety and build trust. Changing
employment restrictions and improving access to health care and housing can reduce the
collateral consequences of convictions. The President’s broader economic strategy that is aimed
at promoting growth, and raising wages and incomes, also helps to reduce crime through
providing viable economic alternatives to criminal activity. Rationalizing the ways we impose
sentences, monetary sanctions, and bail payments can make our court system fairer, smarter,
and more cost-effective. Finally, fixing cell block conditions and providing more skill and job
training, mental health services and access to education for inmates can reduce barriers to
reentry and decrease recidivism.

The Community
Early Childhood Education and Targeted Prevention Programs for Youth

Education interventions can prevent crime by improving future employment outcomes and
reducing individuals’ propensity to engage in risky behavior (see “Employment, Wage, and
Education Policy and Crime Reduction” section). Economic research finds that investments in
early childhood education can reduce crime and incarceration later in life, in part through
improving subsequent educational attainment and reducing school dropout rates (CEA 2016;
Currie 2001). Meanwhile, targeted education intervention programs for young adults can have
large impacts on changing criminal behavior in the near-term and reducing recidivism (CEA
Recognizing the benefits of early childhood education, the Administration has prioritized
expanding access to high-quality preschool. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment
Act, President Obama supported $2.1 billion in Head Start and Early Head Start investments. In
his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called upon Congress to expand access to
high-quality preschool for every child in America. Since then, 37 States and D.C. have increased
funding for their preschool programs by $1.5 billion. Through the Preschool Development Grants

(PDG) program, 18 States have received new Federal funding to expand the reach of their highquality preschool programs in over 200 high-need communities.
The Administration has also invested in targeted education intervention programs for young
adults. The President launched the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative in 2014 to address persistent
education and opportunity gaps among boys and young men of color and to ensure that all young
people can reach their full potential, including an emphasis on reducing the risks of violent crime
for young people. The President’s 2017 Budget proposes $334.4 million for the Justice
Department’s Juvenile Justice Programs and includes evidence-based investments to prevent
youth violence. The Budget also proposes $5.5 billion in new investments to connect more than
1 million young people to first jobs over the summer and year-round. In addition, in 2014, the
President announced the designation of 5 Promise Zone communities, to partner with local
communities and businesses to expand economic and educational opportunity and improve
public safety.
Finally, the Administration has worked to promote safe and productive learning environments
that keep children in school and reduce involvement with the criminal justice system. Once in
public school, students may face harsh discipline policies that can obstruct learning and create a
pipeline from schools to prisons. A study of over 1 million students in Texas found that 60 percent
of students were suspended or expelled between the 7th and 12th grade, and Black students were
30 percent more likely to receive a discretionary disciplinary action (Council of State
Governments 2011). Recognizing this problem, the Departments of Education (ED) and Justice
(DOJ) established the Supportive School Discipline Initiative in 2011, which has issued guidance
on best practices for public school districts and launched a Civil Rights database of disciplinary
actions in over 7,000 districts across the country.
Community Policing and Policing Transparency

Economic research has consistently shown that police effectively reduce crime (see “Police and
Crime Reduction” section). However, while the number of police officers per capita was relatively
constant over the last two decades, the U.S. trails the international policing average by about a
third (FBI UCR Data; Harrendorf, Heiskanen, and Malby 2010). This comparison suggests that
increasing or altering investments in law enforcement and data-driven policing strategies,
represent promising areas for reform.
There are also ways that law enforcement can improve their relationship with the communities
that they serve, without compromising safety. A growing conversation about policing issues,
including use of force and the role of race in police and community relations, has highlighted
areas where law enforcement agencies may need to invest in training and change tactics. Experts
in law enforcement and criminal justice advocates believe that community policing and enhanced
police transparency are strategies that can improve safety and build trust (Police Executive
Research Forum 2015; Goodman 2015).


In 2014, the President commissioned a Task Force on 21st Century Policing, as part of an effort to
help communities and law enforcement strengthen trust and collaboration while continuing to
reduce crime. This year, the Community Oriented Policing (COPS) at DOJ is coordinating with local
communities and law enforcement to implement the recommendations from the Task Force. The
White House established the Police Data Initiative to further these goals by working with over 30
police departments across the country to open data sets to the public and improve data
collection systems. In September 2015, DOJ awarded $20 million in grants to 73 law enforcement
and tribal agencies to purchase body-worn cameras, which research has found can reduce useof-force incidents and citizens’ complaints (Ariel, Farrar, and Sutherland 2015).The COPS office
has also awarded over $1.5 billion in hiring grants to local police forces since 2009, providing
funding support for over 9,000 officers.
Employment Restrictions: Record Expungement, “Ban-the-Box”, and Occupational Licensing

Having a criminal record or a prior history of incarceration can result in major barriers to securing
a job (see “Collateral Consequences in the Labor Market” section). The American Bar Association
National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction documents over 46,000 State and
Federal laws restricting employment, occupational licenses, and business licenses for people with
criminal records (American Bar Association 2016). As discussed above, policies that improve
access to employment and sufficient wages for individuals with criminal records not only benefit
individuals and their families, but also have the potential to decrease recidivism and increase the
economic viability of communities.
The Administration is taking steps to reduce regulatory barriers to employment for people with
criminal records while protecting public safety. The President has directed the Office of Personnel
Management (OPM) to modify its rules to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the
Federal hiring process. He has also called on Congress to build on this announcement, following
a growing number of States, cities, and private companies that have already decided to “ban the
box” on job applications. In addition, as part of the Administration’s ongoing work on
occupational licensing, the White House is encouraging States to refrain from categorically
excluding individuals with criminal records from occupational licenses, and instead to target
criminal records that are recent and relevant, and pose a threat to public safety (CEA et al. 2015).
The DOJ and Departments of Labor (DOL) have partnered to establish a National Clean Slate
Clearinghouse to provide technical assistance to local legal aid programs, public defender offices,
and reentry service providers to help with record-cleaning and expungement. In addition, DOJ
and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) will provide $1.75 million to aid
eligible public housing residents under the age of 25 to expunge or seal their records.
Access to Housing and Health Care

Individuals with limited resources may be denied public housing assistance for low-level offenses,
such as prior alcohol and drug use. Further, incarcerated individuals also disproportionately
suffer from chronic diseases, HIV, mental illness, and substance abuse, and have poor access to

health care and may be excluded from important supportive programs after they are released
(see “Collateral Consequences for Health, Financial Stability, Transportation, Housing, and Food
Security” section; Wilper et al. 2009).
The Administration is implementing several measures to assist individuals with criminal records
access housing and health care. HUD and the Bureau of Justice Assistance at DOJ have launched
an $8.7 million demonstration grant to address homelessness and reduce recidivism among the
justice-involved population. The Pay for Success (PFS) Permanent Supportive Housing
Demonstration will test cost-effective ways to help persons cycling between the criminal justice
and homeless service systems, while making new Permanent Supportive Housing available for
the reentry population. In October 2015, DOJ announced $6 million in awards under the Second
Chance Act to support reentry programming for adults with co-occurring substance abuse and
mental disorders. In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services funded a Health
Care Innovation Award in 2012 for a network that links patients with a chronic medical condition
leaving prison to primary care in the community.
Criminal Justice System Databases and Reporting

Designing effective criminal justice system reform requires research and evaluation of policy
approaches, which in turn necessitates accessible and comprehensive data on criminal justice
system indicators. Currently, most national criminal justice data sets consist of voluntary reports
by law enforcement or are derived from surveys of individuals or facilities. In many cases, data
series are not formally or thoroughly audited due to resource constraints and may provide limited
content or geographic coverage (NAJCD 2015).The nature of voluntary reporting without formal
auditing may cause measurement error and can create challenges in analyzing data.
For example, the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) “Offenses Known and Crimes Cleared by Arrest”
series, the most widely used data series for national and local crime trends, tracks total crime
counts in only seven categories of reported crimes: murder and non-negligent manslaughter,
rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft. These crime
categories were originally chosen because of the relatively high likelihood of individuals reporting
these crimes to the police, and these categories have been consistently collected since the
establishment of the UCR in 1930. In an effort to build on the traditional UCR series and provide
more detail for each reported crime at the incident level, UCR added the National Incident Based
Reporting System (NIBRS) in 1987, but higher reporting burdens on law enforcement agencies
has slowed the adoption of this system and limited its geographic coverage (FBI 2013). As part of
a broader push to improve data transparency and accountability in the criminal justice system,
the Administration is working with the Department of Justice and State and local governments
to convert all law enforcement agency crime reporting to NIBRS from traditional UCR reporting
and working to expand transparency around policing activity through the Police Data Initiative
(FBI 2014; Police Foundation 2016).


The Courtroom
Sentencing Reform

As discussed in detail in the Economic Framework section of this report, the total costs of
incarceration in the United States exceed its benefits. However, the net efficiency of prison and
jail varies by offender type, and sentencing reform is most constructive for low-risk offenders,
for whom long sentences are especially inefficient (CCTF 2016).
The Administration has strongly supported sentencing reform, pursuing policies that reduce the
prison population and apply sentences that are proportional to crimes committed. In 2010,
President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, which reduced the disparity in
mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine possession. In 2014, the
independent United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) voted to amend Federal sentencing
guidelines for certain drug crimes with support from the DOJ. This change in sentencing
guidelines will prospectively reduce the Federal prison population by 6,500 prisoners over 5 years
(USSC 2014). Since the beginning of the Administration, the President has commuted sentences
for 248 Federal prisoners, most of whom were incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes. In 2010,
the Bureau of Justice Assistance launched the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), which provides
technical assistance to States and localities as they collect and analyze data on drivers of criminal
justice populations—including sentencing practices—and identify and implement changes to
reduce correctional spending and reinvest in strategies that decrease crime. Over the past year,
criminal justice reform bills that focus on reducing mandatory minimums sentences for certain
classes of offenders have been proposed in both the House and Senate and have been voted out
of the House and Senate Judiciary Committee with strong bipartisan support and the
Administration is working with Congress to support this legislative effort.
Fines, Fees, and Bail

Monetary sanctions and bail payments are typically not determined with an individual’s ability to
pay in mind, and so these payments disproportionately impact the poor (see “Collateral
Consequences for Health, Financial Stability, Transportation, Housing, and Food Security”
section). Criminal justice debts are often assigned to individuals unable to pay in full, making debt
collection costly to the government and on net inefficient. Though fines and fees may be initially
charged for minor offenses, the burden of these payments can increase for individuals that
cannot pay them on time, with late fees, processing fees, interest, and even incarceration for
failure to pay these debts. Likewise, because bail is typically assigned without consideration for
an individual’s resources, financial bail policies often result in detaining the poorest rather than
the most dangerous offenders.
In March, DOJ announced new guidance and resources to assist state and local reform of fees
and fines practices, and issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” to provide greater clarity to state and
local courts regarding their legal obligations with respect to the enforcement of court fines and
fees and a Resource Guide that assembles issue studies and other publications related to the

assessment and enforcement of court fines and fees. DOJ also announced a $2.5 million
competitive grant program to fund the development of strategies that promote appropriate
justice system responses, including reducing unnecessary confinement, for individuals who are
unable to pay fines and fees.
Given concerns about the growing use of financial bail, the 2011 National Symposium on Pretrial
Justice outlined options for pretrial reform, with a focus on evidence-based policies like riskassessment release models that use data on offense type and criminal history to determine nonfinancial pretrial release.
Drug Court Diversion Programs and Problem-Solving Courts

Problem-solving courts, including Drug Courts, Veterans Courts, and Mental Health Courts, are
specialized courts that focus on particular offense types or offender populations. These courts
offer alternative treatment and case management services in order to improve offender
rehabilitation and reduce recidivism and vary in their eligibility requirements and rehabilitation
approaches. Given a growing body of evaluation evidence of their success in reducing prison
overcrowding and recidivism, problem-solving courts have rapidly expanded since the first drug
court was established in 1989 (GAO 2005). Today, there are over 2,000 drug courts and over
1,000 other problem-solving courts operating across the country (Huddleston and Marlowe
Data from Florida show that counties that divert more defendants (or defer more prosecutions)
prior to trial have higher rates of success, where success is defined as a prosecution or criminal
sanction that is dropped when a defendant completes drug treatment or meets other
requirements of the court (Figure 36). This relationship suggests that expertise and experience
in offering diversion options improves defendant outcomes (Measures for Justice, Figure 36). 46

A deferred prosecution is an agreement between a defendant and the court that the defendant will not be
prosecuted if he/she meets certain conditions (including but not limited to drug treatment offered through drug
courts). Similarly, pretrial diversion requires individual defendants to fulfil certain requirements in order to avoid a
court sanction that has already been assigned through court proceedings. Success in this context means that the
defendant met the requirements of a deferral or diversion.


Figure 37:

Drug court diversion programs are designed to divert non-violent drug offenders from prison to
drug treatment with rigorous accountability standards, and approach drug offenses as health
issue rather than strictly a crime problem. The Bureau of Justice Assistance at DOJ has provided
over $200 million in grants and technical assistance for local problem-solving courts throughout
the Administration. DOJ’s U.S. Attorneys’ Offices participate in diversion and reentry courts in
judicial districts across the country.

The Cell Block
Correctional Education, Rehabilitation Programs, and Job Training

Programs that support successful rehabilitation and provide opportunities for prisoners to build
labor market skills are a critical to eliminating barriers to reentry and reducing recidivism.
Participation rates in correctional education are low; available data shows that despite most
prisons offering these programs, only about half of prison inmates participate, and while over 20
percent of inmates attend GED classes, less than 10 percent earn a high school degree (Harlow
Raising correctional education participation could lower re-offending rates and increase postrelease employment and earnings (Hull et al. 2000; Chappell 2004); one study finds that
participation in a prison GED program is associated with earnings gains of approximately 15
percent following release, though this effect is concentrated on non-Whites and declines over
time (Tyler and Kling 2007). Tailored education and cognitive behavioral therapy interventions
for juveniles in detention are promising areas for investment, with some programs reducing
recidivism by 20 to 40 percent (Heller et al. 2015; Seroczynski et al. 2015).


The Administration has invested in rehabilitation programs in prisons and jails as part of a
broader effort to give released prisoners a better chance at successfully starting over. In 2011,
the Federal Interagency Reentry Council was established to identify and reduce barriers to
reentry in employment, education, housing, health, and other key reentry areas. As part of this
effort, DOL has awarded $10 million in grants to provide One Stop Career Center/American Jobs
Centers services directly in local jails and $3 million to provide technology-based career training
for incarcerated individuals. In July 2015, DOJ and ED announced the Second Chance Pell Pilot
Program, which allows incarcerated Americans to receive Pell Grants for postsecondary
The Administration has also advocated for non-correctional education and job training programs
for individuals who have already been released. In 2015, ED announced $8 million in Adult
Reentry Education Grants, to support evidence-based programs that assist individuals after
release. Likewise, DOL has awarded $27.5 million in Training to Work grants to provide
workforce-related reentry programs for formerly incarcerated individuals. In a partnership with
private sector stakeholders, the Center for Employment Opportunities Transitional Jobs Program
has committed to expanding comprehensive employment services to people with recent criminal
convictions, from 4,500 to 11,000 people served. Lastly, the President’s TechHire initiative has
worked with local communities and national employers to provide fast track technology training
for individuals with criminal records.
Solitary Confinement

Research suggests that solitary confinement can lead to lasting psychological consequences and
has been linked to a range of mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and
withdrawal, along with the potential for violent behavior (Haney 2003). While estimates of the
prevalence of solitary confinement vary, recent research finds that its use is widespread; in 2012,
almost 20 percent of prison inmates and 18 percent of jail inmates reported spending time in
restricted housing in the past 12 months or since coming to their current facility. Certain
categories of prison inmates were especially likely to have reported spending time in restrictive
housing during the past 12 months, including prisoners with less than a high school education
and prisoners who had a history of mental health problems (Figure 38; Beck 2015).


Figure 38:

In July 2015, the President directed Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and the DOJ to review the
use of solitary confinement across U.S. prisons. Since then, DOJ has identified a set of commonsense principles that should guide the use of solitary confinement, including: housing inmates in
the least restrictive settings necessary for safety reasons; ensuring that restrictions on an
inmate’s housing serve a specific penological purpose and are imposed for no longer than
necessary; and ending the practice of placing juveniles in restrictive housing (DOJ 2015). This past
January, the President adopted DOJ’s recommendations to reform the use of solitary
confinement in the Federal prison system, including banning solitary confinement for juvenile
offenders and as a response to low-level infractions, expanding treatment for the mentally ill,
and increasing the amount of time inmates in solitary can spend outside of their cells. These steps
will affect some 10,000 federal prisoners held in solitary confinement, and will hopefully serve as
a model for state and local corrections systems.




The evidence for criminal justice reform is mounting. Although crime rates are historically low,
our criminal justice system incarcerates 2.2 million people, costs taxpayers hundreds of billions
of dollars each year, and imposes substantial indirect consequences on justice system-involved
individuals, their families, and communities. These consequences can include not only negative
impacts on employment, but also health, debt, transportation, housing, and food security. They
are disproportionately borne by Black and Hispanic men, poor individuals, and individuals with
high rates of mental illness and substance abuse.
At the same time, economic research suggests that there are several policies that would make
our criminal justice system more cost-effective and equitable. Research finds that investments in
police and policies that improve labor market opportunity and educational attainment are more
cost-effective than additional incarceration and can reduce the collateral consequences of
convictions. Offering more correctional education and job training for inmates and the formerly
incarcerated can reduce barriers to reentry and decrease recidivism. Reconsidering the ways we
impose sentences, monetary sanctions, and bail payments can make our criminal justice system
fairer and smarter.
The Obama Administration has taken a number of steps to make our criminal justice system more
effective, efficient, and equitable. The Administration has invested in targeted prevention
programs for youth and early childhood education to reduce crime both in the near-term and
over the long-run. The Administration has promoted community policing and enhanced police
transparency to improve community safety and build trust, and worked to change employment
restrictions and expand access to health care and housing to reduce the collateral consequences
of convictions. In addition, the Administration has implemented new policies to provide skill and
job training, mental health services and access to education for inmates to reduce barriers to
reentry and decrease recidivism.
Over the coming year, the Administration will continue to pursue reform within the Executive
Branch and work with Congress to pass meaningful criminal justice reform legislation.


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