As with much of the Interlock, a big cause of the inefficiency and high cost in our justice system is the refusal to spend enough money in the right place and the right way to deal with the problem at the source. When communities skimp on police and prosecutors and judges, crime rates rise. Rising crime puts pressure on all parts of the law enforcement system to arrest and convict more people, which they do. The same pressures persuade state legislators to vote for tougher laws and bigger prisons, but building prisons and warehousing prisoners is the most expensive and least effective way to reduce crime.
The most effective way? More cops and more community-based policing. Both the historical evidence and our recent experience in cities like New York demonstrate conclusively that having more police on the streets, on foot and out in the community, reduces both the number and the severity of crimes committed. Surprisingly, it also substantially reduces the number of people arrested and the number of people sent to prison.
The marginal cost of adding one more beat cop in most places is well under $100,000 a year. The direct cost to arrest, convict, and imprison the average prisoner for three years is more than $100,000. The costs to the family of the prisoner and to the victims of each crime committed are much harder to pin down, but they are substantial. On the average, adding one cop to an understaffed police force reduces the number of crimes committed and criminals imprisoned by substantially more than one per year, and simple arithmetic says that that is a huge win.
If it makes that much sense, why don’t communities just hire more cops? Because they don’t pay for the prisons. States do. When local resources are tight, local governments slash budgets and fire officers, saving money, and it’s the state taxpayers who will then have to pay a much higher price for it a few years later.
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