Un-Making a Murderer

Preventing crimes provides huge cost savings

A friend asked how much money we would save if we enacted good criminal justice reform. The answer is, “It’s complicated, but it’s much more than you might think, and the money may not even be the most important reason to do it.”

Good criminal justice policy doesn’t just save money — it saves lives. Preventing crime and managing or rehabilitating criminals is a core function of a valid government and a critical ingredient in a healthy society. Administering justice and building stronger communities is good for victims, perpetrators, and for those who will never directly experience crime. It’s impossible to put a price tag on social cohesion, peace of mind, and trust in the rule of law, but these things are invaluable for making our society and economy function.

But our friend wants to get down to brass tacks. Surely we can calculate the financial implications of these policies, right?

Well, sort of. It’s difficult to give a dollar figure because policy changes enacted today won’t achieve their full impact for months or years. And the social and economic factors that affect the crime rate — which has been steadily declining in recent years —can change independently of our policymaking. Finally, we must estimate the ripple effect of a crime or a change in criminal justice policy.

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That last point is interesting and important. We have options to reduce our current spending on criminal justice and corrections services. But we shouldn’t forget that finding a way to provide the same services for less money is not as powerful as reducing our demand for those services. So yes, let’s make sure that our criminal justice system is cost-effective. But let’s also do whatever we can to make the criminal justice system less necessary. Small steps toward that goal offer massive benefits.

Consider a murder, the ultimate criminal act. Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which a policy solution prevents a murder from occurring by investing more resources in community policing. Enacting the policy that prevented a murder helped us avoid over $1.5 million in costs associated with resolving a single criminal act. And that’s just the beginning.

It also helped us avoid spending roughly $35,000 per year incarcerating the murderer for a long time — possibly his whole life. But let’s be conservative and assume that the murder we prevented would have only been a second-degree crime. Assume that the offender would have received a sentence at the top of the recommended minimum range, or 12.5 years, and that he would only have served his minimum time. In that case, preventing a murder works out to $437,500 in avoided corrections expenses.

Since our hypothetical criminal didn’t go to prison, neither was he paroled. So we avoided another $3,600 for a year of parole. Also, the community did not spend any money to provide him with re-entry services, and with no felony conviction, he will not struggle to find employment.

Keeping our non-murderer out of prison protected his family, with great benefit to the rest of us. They didn’t suffer emotionally and financially from his incarceration. That in turn reduced the odds that his child would have committed a robbery — a $19,500 societal cost — and ended up in juvenile detention. The average length of a stay in detention is a year long and the average cost to the state and county is $200 per day, or $73,000. That’s another saving. We also kept his family off welfare, saving $28,872 per year during the term of his incarceration, or $360,000.

Meanwhile, during the 12.5 years that he wasn’t in prison, he contributed $26,500 in state income taxes (4.25 percent of a $50,000 income, a little more than the state average), and $21,025 in local property taxes. (The property tax example comes from Genesee County’s 2.1  percent tax rate on an $80,000 home.) He also persuaded his child to get a job and finish school, helping her into a productive, law-abiding future.

Using this back-of-the-napkin math, we find that our hypothetical averted murder saved us nearly $2.5 million in costs and lost revenue, not to mention the emotional and social trauma the community would have experienced. That’s an incredible achievement. And it goes to show that criminal activity touches many aspects of public and personal life.

Crime is complicated and destructive and expensive. But smart policies can translate small changes into big savings and foster stronger communities whose growth will compound well into the future. So it’s important that we get it right.


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