Senator Tom Cotton, one of the upper chamber’s most vocal opponents of a bill that would cut prison time for some non-violent felons, made headlines this week by declaring that America has “an under-incarceration problem.” He defended his statement by pointing out that many criminals are never held accountable for their wrongdoing. From Politico:
“Take a look at the facts. First, the claim that too many criminals are being jailed, that there is over-incarceration, ignores an unfortunate fact: for the vast majority of crimes, a perpetrator is never identified or arrested, let alone prosecuted, convicted, and jailed,” Cotton said during a speech at The Hudson Institute, according to his prepared remarks. “Law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”
Cotton is right that too many crimes go unsolved. But his reasoning conflates two distinct questions: First, How many people does the criminal justice system apprehend and punish?, and second, How severely does it punish them? It can be true both that our law enforcement system does not capture enough criminals and that the sentences imposed are too severe.
In fact, that probably is the case. There is good evidence the crime rate would be lower if we took some of the money we are currently spending on incarcerating criminals and redirected it toward making sure a higher share of criminals were captured in the first place (i.e., toward hiring more police officers).
As Alex Tabarrok wrote last month at Marginal Revolution:
Our focus on prisons over police may be crazy but it is consistent with what I called Gary Becker’s Greatest Mistake, the idea that an optimal punishment system combines a low probability of being punished with a harsh punishment if caught. That theory runs counter to what I have called the good parenting theory of punishment in which optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh.
We need to change what it means to be “tough on crime.” Instead of longer sentences let’s make “tough on crime” mean increasing the probability of capture for those who commit crimes.
Increasing the number of police on the street, for example, would increase capture rates and deter crime and by doing so it would also reduce the prison population.
In other words, a system that captured a higher share of offenders, but sent them to prison for shorter stints, would likely be more effective than the one we have now. So while Cotton is right, in some sense, that we have an “under-incarceration problem,” that doesn’t mean sentences shouldn’t be cut for some offenses. It means that we should hire more cops.
Of course, that proposition wouldn’t sit well with Black Lives Matter and many of the other groups advocating for criminal justice reform. But it raises the possibility of a compromise that could win over lawmakers skeptical of reform: What if the federal sentencing bill took some portion of the expected savings from relaxing sentences and granted it to local police departments—not for buying more fancy gear or for topping off pensions, but for hiring and training more quality beat cops and detectives? This kind of arrangement has the potential to resolve Cotton’s “under-incarceration problem” while reducing the overall number of people behind bars.