News & Politics

White House Economists: Putting People in Prison Hurts the Economy

White House economists are making  the strangest argument in favor of criminal justice reform yet. The learned academics say that putting people in jail hurts the economy.

Given their record over the last seven years, it’s probably a good idea to ignore them.


Longer prison sentences for non-violent criminals and crowded prisons are hurting the American economy more than they are helping it, economists in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration said in a report released on Saturday.

The prison population in the United States is 4.5 times larger than it was in 1980, primarily driven by longer sentences and higher conviction rates for nearly all offenses, according to the Council’s report.

Economists are “of one mind” that packed prisons, excessively long sentences, and insufficient reentry programs “are counter-productive to our economy as a whole in addition to hurting the people involved,” Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, told reporters in a call on Friday.

On Monday, administration officials, economists, business leaders, and scholars will discuss the Council’s findings at an event hosted by the White House, the American Enterprise Institute think tank, and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

The United States can reap greater economic benefit through investments in police, prisoner education, and job opportunities for ex-prisoners than it can from putting additional funding toward prisons, the Council’s report said.

The Council’s report was based on a review of existing economics research, and does not estimate the indirect costs borne by the U.S. economy as a result of its current criminal justice policies.

Later this year, the Brennan Center will unveil a study quantifying how much the U.S. criminal justice system costs Americans in terms of employment, wages, and gross domestic product, said the center’s director of justice programs, Inimai Chettiar.

Previous administrations have not brought the same focus to how criminal justice policies affect the U.S. workforce, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who led the Congressional Budget Office from 2003-05 and is now president of the American Action Forum think tank.

Sorry, not buying it. The criminal element may be the least productive members of the economy. Duh. Rather than work for a living, they rob, mug, and steal. The notion that they would add anything substantial to the economy — especially since 2/3 of them will be back in prison in a few years — is nonsense.

Maybe the economists think we should start taxing their ill-gotten gains. Good luck collecting it.

Seriously, this is a dumb argument for an important issue. There may be reasons to reform parts of the criminal justice system, but the idea that we have too many people incarcerated for too long is absurd. Those who argue there are too many black males in prison are trying to disconnect the notion of criminal activity from incarceration. They didn’t just magically transport to jail. They did something to deserve their sentences.

Why does their race matter? Shouldn’t their guilt or innocence be the primary issue? And the issue in sentencing criminals is not black or white, it’s green. If you’ve got the cash to get a good criminal lawyer, your chances of serving a long jail term are dramatically reduced.

Many of us forget the crime spree of the 1990s that led to these longer jail terms. And guess what? It worked. Taking criminals off the streets for longer periods of time made us all safer. But now, there is agitation to reduce sentences and release “non-violent” offenders.

I can think of better things to spend money on than new prisons. But as long as there are sociopaths who make it their job to hurt and steal from others, we’re going to need to lock them away to protect law-abiding citizens from their depredations.



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