Could $30,000 a year prevent one crime?

Consider that the average cost to house an inmate for a year is about $30,000 (between $20,000 and $40,000) [cite]. According to Wikipedia, there are currently over 2million people imprisoned in the US [cite], leading to a total cost of nearly $60billion per year!

That’s $60billion of your hard earned tax dollars being used to feed, clothes, shelter, entertain, AND provide health care for criminals.

So this got me thinking, could $30,000 prevent a crime? Would giving a potential criminal $30,000 keep them from breaking the law?

And if it could, what would be better? A social welfare system costing $60billion that prevents all crimes, or a penal system costing $60billion that deals with the after effects.

Diminishing returns. Ya gotta figure, there are criminals who would rather break the law than take the money. And then you’ve got the dishonest ones who would take the money and commit crime anyway. Or the irrational ones, who would take the money, and then get drunk or angry or something and forget about the deal.

Edit: Not that I disagree with your general point.

Most people in prison are not there because they were trying to eke out a very modest living.

This might prevent some theft/robberies, but not assault, murder, etc. And a true criminal mind has his goals a lot higher than 30k a year.

I doubt it would have any effect whatsoever on white collar crime.

Yes, many are in there because they were trying to eke out a sub-minimum wage living (street corner dealers make around minimum wage or below on average.)

Of course it would be too expensive to give everyone in America $30,000 a year, and if we did inflation would remove most (but not all) of that purchasing power anyway.

But it’s true that if we could magically identify those who are about to become street-corner drug dealers and gave them $30,000 a year it would reduce their numbers by a lot.

You seem to be disagreeing with my assesment that most people in prison were not there because they were trying to make a living…

I said “most”, you countered with “Many” - not a pure disagreement, but your wording denotes disagreement.

of 2.3 million prisoners, only 1 million are there for non-violent crimes.

Assuming every non-violent crime is a corner drug dealer and not martha stewart, that still leave a majority (most) that are in there because they are dangerous, not because they need money.

Stringent analysis of the crime/incarceration numbers will show 55% of people in jail for violent crimes and public order offenses. Of course some violent crime is done from desperation for money, but some theft is done to try to make a modest life better (Martha Stewart is far from unique) And some drug dealers want millions not thousands.

You’d have to stretch it to get to more than 50% of people are in jail/prison because they needed a better paycheck.

But if you’re going to hand out money as a preventive strike against crime, be sure to send me a check too. I’m not considering commiting a crime anytime soon, but 30k would go a long way to make sure that doesn’t change…right?


Under this system, if I walk into the police station and say I was thinking about committing a crime, could I get $30,000?

And you’d have to talk to a counselor for three fifteen minute sessions.

There are several problems with this, starting with how one would identify in advance those likely to commit crimes.

Street level drug dealers don’t really do it for the money at least initially. Lots of them are in gangs which are often very well organized as a multi-level marketing business. Low level dealers can get “promoted” just like people in corporations can can end up making serious money as they rise through the ranks. Of course, most never make it that far but almost all of them think that they can. See the book Freakonomics for a good discussion of this topic.

While I think it’s important to use other means of punishment, just paying people 30k (or whatever) will not prevent many from committing crimes. Particularly when many (most) of those crimes are getting high, or selling people substances to get high. The majority of our criminal justice system problems could be erased if we addressed our drug laws.

Second, people commit crimes for non-economic reasons as well. Many people could make as much working at Starbucks as they would selling weed, but selling weed has other non-economic benefits for them.

I think it would be far more effective to use other means of punishment besides jail time. Sentence them to lots of community service, ankle monitoring, and a halfway house. You could also fine people, or publicly shame them. Again, alternatives are good, but just paying people not to commit crimes would not work IMO.

A lot depends on the drug. Most pot dealers I have known, for example, were not gang members, but rather dealt drugs as a way of subsidizing their own supply and making some cash on the side.

From what I could see the returns were pretty crappy for the risks they run, and most would have been better off simply working a regular job and paying for their drugs - but a habit of constantly getting high isn’t one conducive to most regular occupations.

These folks generally have no ambitions to be drug kingpins.

Statistics - linked above- show drug offenses represnt aroud 27% of crime for people incarated- far from the majority.

I expected this statement to be made, and it’s too bad really. Not much more I can say on the matter, other than to express my disappointment.

With regards to white collar crime, it’s true that the goal they are after is in the millions not thousands, but perhaps the $30,000 could go towards better enforcement of current laws, such that the perceived risk goes up enough to counter the perceived benefit. Basically, we all speed from time to time, and we do it because we don’t think we’ll get caught. If the city announced 100 fold increase in speed traps we’d probably slow down.

Secondly, there are mountains of data and studies, concerning what makes a high risk individual. The bulk of US prisons are made up men from low income areas, and not the Martha Stewards or Madoffs.

At the end of the day it’s a numbers game. I think for a lot of kids growing up in urban slums a $30,000 a year job would be a dream come true. And having that job for a year builds the experience and skill to progress towards a $40,000 a year job. So in the first year the government (your taxes) provides a good job for $30k, and in the next year you have a skilled individual who is not in jail and is able to find a non-government job. So in the first year you break even because you would have spent that $30k on him being in prison. But in the second year you have an extra $30k because that kid is NOT in jail.

I also have a feeling that there are a lot of schools in low income areas that are desperate for $30,000 to hire another teacher, or improve equipment and resources, thus improving the quality of education for the same individuals who would otherwise drop out and end up in jail.

And finally, consider the cost of even a basic college education. A $30,000 scholarship could go a long way for a student that wants to get a technical diploma.

What needs to be pointed out is that each of us have an incentive to NOT commit crimes (violent or otherwise). The young men that make up the bulk of the prison population lack those incentives. All too often a life in jail is just slightly better than life outside jail. When you have no job prospects, no education, and no skills, crime seems like a reasonable alternative.

Given that we already have over 2million people in jail, with no real signs of that slowing, perhaps the $30k per person cost could be better spent.

Or we could actually make an effort at rehabilitating those incarcerated. Go back to making them work (productive work) all day long with minimal breaks, no TV, no weight rooms, no libraries. If they want to read, have a newspaper.

No one would want to live at this prison.

I regret that you’re saddened, but you didn’t address how your system prevents 295,000,000 Americans from saying they are considering a serious crime unless they get paid off.

But if you include all the offenses that were committed by drug users, or by drug gangs, the figure climbs quite a bit, I’ll bet.

Look at it this way, how many of these criminals could have joined the military but didn’t?

The Military is a job available to not quite everyone, but unless all these people in prison were unfit to serve before they started their life of crime, your argument holds no water. (Criminal life itself is often life threatening so no arguing the life-on-the-line)

There’s going to have to be a lot more investment than 30k/year for college tuition to bring some kids up to the level where they wouldn’t flunk out of college in the first year. And you can in fact go to techschool college for less than the current Pell Grants. -Meaning education is available to these people.

30k would not stop:
(Crime-percent of incarcerated men)
Other offensesg 0.5
Other public-order 2.7
Immigration violations 1.9
Drunkenness, morals 1.5
Driving while intoxicated 6.6
Obstruction of justice 3.8
Weapons 2.2
Other/unspecified drug 1.5
Possession 10.3
Fraud 3.7
Other violent 1.3
Assault 12.2
Other sexual assault 3.1
Rape 0.7
Negligent manslaughter 0.6
Murder, nonnegligent manslaughter 2.1
Total: 54.7

Incarceration works - letting them out early doesn’t.

I’m all for more spending on education and awareness to keep people on the edge from seeking salvation in crime. But at some point it becomes cheaper to just toss criminals in a cell than to try to prevent it.

The biggest problem with paying to prevent is aiming the money - where do you spend it? on whom?

As soon as you start giving money away to people who show early signs (light crime/shoplifting/antisocial behavior) you will get people exhibiting these signs to get the payout.

I’ve read the book, and one of the many things that bothers me about it is that people treat that book as gospel, and that they overestimate how well the authors’ economic analysis overlaps with real life. First, if memory serves, most of the figures were based on one gang, dealing crack, in Chicago, in the mid-eighties. By no means can anyone confidently state that that gang is representative of how most gangs, or drug dealers operate.

The book says that those low-level dealers, and minimum wage workers, have similar take home pay. I don’t find that too surprising anyway. Do most people at the bottom of any enterprise, or those selling things on the street, make a great deal of money? Hell, many large companies don’t even pay people on the bottom.

Furthermore, even if the stat is true, claiming they “make the same” is somewhat misleading since drug dealers are doing far less actual work. It’s factually accurate, but leads people to illogical conclusions. The latter part is exacerbated by the fact that minimum-wage employers (McDonalds, Walmart, etc.) and gang leaders are generally not competing for the same people. The book makes it seem like there are swathes of people debating whether they should sell Big Macs or heroin. It’s not that useful to compare two avenues as if they are equally possible outcomes for the people being discussed. Making it an economics issue when trying to discover, “why they sell drugs if they make so little doing it”, is only useful when you are comparing options available to that person. It’s like asking why they a drug kingpin didn’t just open a hedge fund, or play in the NFL. I mean they have the same take home pay, right?

Maybe we’re spending too much to incarcerate people.

Make incarceration cheaper. Prison should be less like the Holiday Inn and more like the Barracks in military basic training.

I didn’t say most people were in jail for drugs, I said most of our systemic problems could be erased if we changed our drug laws. I stand by that. Particularly since drugs are involved in many of those murders, gun charges, assaults, robberies, DUIs, etc. etc.

Works in what way? It doesn’t seem to prevent people from committing more crimes by lowering recidivism, nor does it prevent other people becoming criminals. We already have 1% of our adult population in jail or prison. How many people can we lock up? Honestly, where does this end?