Magazine | October 19, 2015, Issue


Crime and Over-punishment

It is surprising that the editors of National Review would publish Stephanos Bibas’s article, which describes at length the harmful social effects of keeping convicted criminals behind bars but entirely neglects to mention the enormous good such practices have produced (“Prisoners without Prisons,” September 21).

Bibas asserts in passing that we have gained “too little benefit to show” for what he calls “over-imprisonment,” but he neglects to specify any benefits at all. It’s not clear that he thinks there are any.

Here’s one: The lives of tens of thousands of people have been saved because of the steep decline in violent crime in the U.S., especially homicide, since the 1990s. Surely the growing prison population beginning in the 1980s had something to do with it.

Apart from that major omission, he has some useful and interesting things to say.

Ray Enslow

Los Angeles

Stephanos Bibas responds: Of course imprisonment brings concrete benefits as well as costs; I believe that most of the defendants whom I once prosecuted needed some imprisonment. But the question is one of net, not gross, benefits. As with tax rates, there is a point of diminishing and eventually negative returns, and we may well have passed it.

The most rigorous studies attribute only a modest fraction of the drop in crime to imprisonment; much of the credit goes to the removal of lead from gasoline and paint, increased numbers of police officers, policing methods driven by data systems such as CompStat, the aging of the high-crime youth cohort, the waning of the crack epidemic, declining alcohol consumption, and (controversially) the legalization of abortion.

Many economists conclude that, at this point, devoting additional dollars to policing is far more effective than devoting them to imprisonment, and carries a much lower social as well as monetary cost. Equating temporal sequence with simple causation is the classic fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. And I presume that if abortion reduces crime, Mr. Enslow would not jump from that gross benefit to advocating its mass use as a crime-control measure.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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