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Imprisoning Violent Criminals May Be Costly, But Releasing Them Costs Society More

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An important Wall Street Journal commentary by former Attorney General Bill Barr cites three significant and startling statistics that every American concerned by rising crime needs to confront.

First, Americans must recognize that while the impact of criminal violence is widespread, its perpetrators represent a tiny fraction of our total populace. This “small, hard-core group of habitual offenders constitute roughly 1% of the overall population but commit between half and two thirds of predatory violent crime. Barr writes that “each of these offenders can be expected to commit scores, even hundreds of crimes a year… The only time they aren’t committing crimes is when they’re in prison.”

Second, Barr describes the dramatic shift in national policies and priorities that began in the Reagan and G. H. W. Bush administrations, with a focus on “getting tough” on crime that continued during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. As a result, from 1991 to 2013, the total prison population in the U.S. doubled – from roughly 800,000 to 1.8 million. At the same time, violent crime plummeted, dropping for 23 years. By 2014 it had been cut in half – to a level not seen since 1970 – and homicides of black victims were down by about 5,000 a year.

Third, the former attorney general slams the Obama administration “which saw a return to the revolving-door and the demonization of police” so that by 2014 crime rates were headed back up” with further increases “in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter riots.”

Attorney General Barr acknowledges the steep costs of increasing expenditures for more protection from police forces and expanded prison capacity, but he mentions the other lavish spending we provide to “reduce the risk of premature death or injury to the members of the public, including billions on highway safety, environmental quality” and medical care.

He concludes by recommending a rigorous, impartial cost-benefit analysis regarding the new resources we need for apprehending and incarcerating career criminals. “Progressives say we can’t afford to keep violent predators in prison,” he laments. “On the contrary, we can’t afford not to.”

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