The Cost of Low Crime

We already have excellent ways to minimize the crime rate. By now surely it’s no surprise that “Tough on Crime” is not one of them. Tough on crime? Tough on taxpayers.

How much are you willing to pay for low crime? Is it worth it? First, let’s take a stab at the overall cost of crime.

There are 2.4M people serving time. (That’s over 450% higher than in 1980. Are we 4.5 times better off?) And what do we spend on them? Well, it varies, and depends on how it’s calculated, but it’s about what the average family earns in a year. New York City spends much more, some $168K, enough to pay for a pretty good bachelor’s degree at a lot of private colleges. We spend a total of about $73B annually.

[Addendum: Take a look at this telling graphic that shows a quick history of the drug war and its results.]

We already have excellent ways
to minimize the crime rate.

Now, that’s just the cost after a crook is captured, tried, and incarcerated. But all the cops, jury, court system, and lawyers have to be paid before that happens. The most expensive serial killer cost us $800,000,000 all told, about two-and-a-half bucks for every single American.

As you can readily see, we could save billions by minimizing the crime rate, and there are plenty of things we could do that we know are effective.

Lead abatement is massively effective, as I have pointed out here and here. The crime rate dropped like a rock twenty years after the extensive program to remove lead from old homes began, because the children who would have been brain damaged by lead paint grew up normal and non-criminal.

Brain damage of the fetus or infant is quite likely to create criminal behavior, lead poisoning being just one of the ways that can happen. Other ways include unwise behavior in pregnancy, such as using illegal drugs, drinking any alcohol at all, and smoking. Poor nutrition causes low birth weight, which is associated with retarded development and lower intelligence. Obviously, it is of primary importance to teach young women about the severe dangers of these behaviors for their babies. Young women who drink, smoke, or take drugs are unlikely to understand the severity of danger to their babies without some sort of educational intervention.

Brain damage of the fetus or infant
is quite likely to create criminal behavior.

Lest we look with great disdain on such young and ignorant women who use drugs and alcohol, let us recall the ongoing parade of rich celebrities who die from drug use, the druggie politicians so often in the news, and the fallen professionals like doctors and lawyers who are well represented in treatment programs.

The cost of prevention is high, but measure it against the cost of crime. Remember, just one man cost us $800-million, and incarceration alone runs some $73B annually.

Unfortunately, child abuse often accompanies drug use and other bad behaviors, and child abuse is also a primary creator of criminal adults. Virtually every single violent criminal had a nightmare childhood. Obviously, then, doing whatever it takes to end this not only prevents future crime, but also breaks the chain for coming generations, because most abusive parents were themselves abused, and a non-abused child is far less likely to become a criminal.

Every single violent criminal
had a nightmare childhood.

But social services as we usually find them are hopelessly inadequate to the task, because they are underfunded, undertrained, and understaffed. Typically, personnel have a caseload that is far too large. How far would $800M go in remedying this situation?

The quality of a child’s diet is a factor that is under-appreciated. Children behave and perform markedly better in school when they have a wholesome diet heavy in fresh vegetables and fruits, with limited meats and almost no sugar or fast foods. This is exactly what is hard to find in many urban areas.

In locales with high crime rates, it is often virtually impossible to find stores selling nutritious food. Fast food joints and liquor stores, by contrast, are everywhere. It should be worth it for governments to encourage stores that carry good food to locate in these areas. Providing very good food in all schools should also pay dividends.

A quarter of the prison population
suffers from mental illness.

A quarter of the prison population suffers from mental illness, and such people are often rearrested because they are rarely adequately treated. Many are of low intelligence. Their prison experience rarely matches their needs, solitary confinement being the most common mistreatment. Other bad practices include frequent movement within the prison and between prisons and total lack of medical treatment, or treatment with the wrong drugs.

All of these things—lead abatement, fetal protection, child abuse prevention, good food, mental health care—incur large costs, and the benefit is not immediately obvious. Lead abatement paid off big—but only after two decades had passed. Similar delays occur with education of young pregnant women and with stopping child abuse.

None of these benefits can even be directly measured, because they occur because things did not happen. We have no way of knowing whether a normal young adult would have become a violent criminal, because he did not. A crime that did not happen is observable only as a comparative statistic.

These things are beneficial
because of what did not happen.

What we spend on education is also important. We are the only advanced nation that not only does not spend equally on every child, but actually spends less on the child who needs the most help, and the most on the child who needs it least. It would surprise most Americans to know that this is not what happens in all other advanced nations. In fact, a number of them designate additional funds to spend on disadvantaged children.

Conservative America harbors an abhorrent and anti-democratic belief about our social makeup, which is played out in the political arena on a continuous basis. Many conservatives believe that there are a certain class of people who are essentially beyond help. They are untalented, stupid, lazy, criminal, etc., so we should not waste money on them. There is more than a little racism involved.

We are the only advanced nation
that spends less on the child
who needs the most help.

But everything we know says they are simply wrong. It benefits nobody to punish the poor, or a cultural-racial group, and it’s clear that there is no inferior race or culture. It is clear that the escalating inequality in the US is being paid for by the poor. It is clear that common work is so poorly paid that the rest of us must subsidize low-wage workers so they have enough food.

How much should we be spending to minimize crime? That’s hard to say, because we have spent our money in the wrong places for so long that we now have a large, unavoidable cost because of this failure. Worse, Republicans embrace a false belief that whatever we do will lose money, so we should do as little as possible—a penny wise and pound foolish position that ignores the evidence.

We can, in fact, eventually whittle down the cost of crime by paying for conditions that are conducive to normal and not criminal behavior. We can make a society of healthier babies and children who are not abused. We can provide adequate funding and better food for our schools. We can treat every case of mental illness, and much more.

The benefits won’t be fully visible for at least a generation, but we can be certain they will be great benefits, both in dollars and in the better society that will result.


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