Crime, Punishment and Economics

If the most costly method for punishing crime is imprisonment then I have to question whether the length of sentencing, under the current system, is given the weight of consideration it deserves.  Surely the numbers: 1 year, 5 years, 10 years [and the like] aren’t completely arbitrary (let us hope) … and yet they are ultimately profound in the impact on the convicted, children of the convicted (if the case) and the rest of society, which foots the bill.  To put it another way, length of sentence is neither the matter nor the moment to be issuing conveniently round numbers purely for the sake of clerical expediency.  The fact that they often seem rounded off to years (occasionally months) rather than calculated out to an exact number of days  – as should be the case, is to me a flag that the system is flawed.

Right away there are two critical questions that ought to be posed:

First is how much time is needed before a person feels sufficiently punished for their mistake, for their wrong action?  Would one year be sufficient?  Why not five years?  For that matter why not 49 days?  How long does it take really for someone to think, ‘this is highly unpleasant and not worth the crime and I think I’d rather be doing something productive out in the real world instead of spending time here.’  It actually turns out to be a very important question since, in point of fact, every day counts …every day of either being part of the costly system of corrections versus being [at least potentially] a contributing member of society.

The second question:  Is this person being incarcerated purely for the sake of punishment, or are they being deliberately sequestered as a bona fide danger to society?  The purpose of the incarceration is of paramount importance, as is the manner of punishment on the whole (a point fairly beyond the scope of this essay).

Punishment can take many forms, as can duration, and so forth on to the ultimate efficacy of the entire process.  The important thing to remember is that every day is another day to ponder one’s life, life decisions and alternate paths that may, if afforded the opportunity, give a person some modicum of value in society.

Another key element here is economics.  To start, keeping people imprisoned places a net burden on the economy, whereas willing citizens (even those who’ve made mistakes and done wrong) if properly empowered by society can, each in their own way, contribute to a growing and healthy economy.  Every day of a person’s life they are either a benefit or a burden to the system.

Consider some of the figures floating around.  If they are to be believed then the average annual cost of incarcerating a single individual ranges anywhere from $18,000 to $50,000 (depending on the state).  Let’s work with a ballpark figure by taking the median – $34,000.  Break that down and it comes to roughly $93 per day.  One person, locked up for one year… $34,000.  Who pays for it?  The rest of us.  How much money and labor is that same individual putting back into the economy over the same span of time?  Virtually $0.  But that’s just a starting point; we need to consider scale.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics gives a figure of about 6.9 million or 2.9% of adults in the U.S. (by the way that’s approximately 1 in every 34 adults) under some form of correctional supervision.  That’s nearly 3% of the entire adult population of the United States, not actually making any direct contribution to the economy, compounded of course by the societal implications of having so many people churning through the system.  Let’s say we factor out parolees and probationers and cut the figure down to 3.5 million.  From this position we needn’t go far to figure the relative daily cost of maintaining the system at this level, a system it turns out that is heavily correlated to a sentencing methodology that deals typically in rounded months and years, rather than intelligently calculated days.  Compare a sentence of “5 years” to one that’s “974 days.”

Instead of simple round numbers, each term should be processed through an algorithm, one that takes into account multiple factors: The seriousness of the crime (of course), the nature of the crime (especially), prior history, age of the convicted (perhaps), health (surely), propensity to violence, relative degree of remorse (if possible), attachment to dependent children, and easily many other factors.  Computer intelligence is here.  There is, absolutely, no reason that punishment can’t be tailor-fit (by way of an algorithm) to each individual and each circumstance …effecting genuine punishment while simultaneously incorporating a numerous variety of very real and relevant factors.

According to the rules of prosecution two crimes may be the same, but by no means are two circumstances ever the same.  And the ultimate goal, let us hope, is punishment, restitution and (most of all) rehabilitation.

In short, conviction + computer intelligence ÷ weighted input of unique, case-specific factors …should very easily produce fair and effective punishment, that also happens to be of better economic and social benefit.  This matters because every time a conviction and sentence are handed down all of us become stakeholders.

Key takeaways:

  • No more semi-arbitrary ‘round’ figures
  • Punishment is more subjective than relative
  • Sentencing should be stated in days, not months or years
  • Computer intelligence is ready to assist
  • It’s a question of justice, effectiveness and economics
  • Each day of correction/confinement is significant
Published in: on January 27, 2013 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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