White House economists: Keeping criminals in jail hurts the economy

This is the most ridiculous argument in favor of criminal justice reform you are likely to hear. White House economists are saying that we have too many people locked up for too long and we have to change that because it's damaging the economy.


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.

Since the recession of the late 2000s, "every aspect of the workforce has been scrutinized more closely, and this sort of popped out," he told Reuters.

Allow me to inject some common sense into this argument.

First, there's a reason these people are in jail. They didn't magically transport into prison because they were peaceful, law abiding citizens. Most inmates committed crimes against people and property and no "reentry" program is going to alter their behavior. They are, by definition, anti-social. And while certain non-violent criminals may not be a direct threat to citizens, most inmates deserve to be housed as far away from society as we can get them.

As far as hurting the economy, as a group, criminals are the least productive members of society. Most inmates will be a burden to the economy once they're free. And how long before they end up back in jail? Recidivism rates are astronomical. This study found that in only 30 states, there was a 75% chance of rearrest for a criminal after he's released. 

How can a released inmate be productive when he's behind bars?

Despite the magical thinking by White House economists and others. the best solution to our prison problem is to build more prisons. Many of us may be forgetting the horrific crime wave of the 1990's. Congress reformed sentencing to keep repeat offenders in prison for longer periods of time. To no one's surprise, the crime rate crashed and the quality of life for Americans - especially in big cities, improved.

Certainly we have better things to spend money on than building prisons. But until another solution presents itself, we have to protect ourselves from the depradations of career criminals.