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Making Crime Pay

This column was written by Daniel Freedman.

While the relatives of the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks may be upset that al Qaeda's Zacarias Moussaoui will serve life in prison rather than face the death penalty, American taxpayers might question why millions of their taxpayers dollars will be spent keeping the arch-terrorist locked up. Keeping criminals locked up costs taxpayers billions of dollars. The popular refrain that criminals have "paid their debt to society" on their release is a half-truth at best. On release, criminals should just be getting their bill.

According to the National Institute for Corrections, the national average cost of keeping an inmate in jail (as of 2001) is $22,650 a year. In New York, the cost is $36,835. Other states range from $8,128 to $44,379. As of December 31, 2004, according to Bureau of Justice statistics,"2,135,901 prisoners were held in Federal or State prisons or in local jails." (The cost to keep arch-terrorists like Moussaoui incarcerated is much more.) That means it costs taxpayers approximately $48 billion a year to keep criminals in jail — and that's not small change.

Americans already face a hefty tax bill. While people may disagree whether taxpayers' dollars should be funding health care, education, and other governmental programs, it's hard to justify why taxpayers should be paying $48 billion a year to give criminals meals, exercise, and a roof over their heads. Innocent citizens have to pay when others commit a crime. The more criminals in jail, or the greater the severity of the crime and the longer the sentence, the more the innocent citizen has to pay.

If the innocent taxpayer doesn't want to be taxed more, the choice is either to accept cuts to other government programs or to release criminals. This isn't a moot point: The Los Angeles Times recently reported that the Wapato Facility in Portland, Oregon, "took $59 million and two years to construct. But in the nearly two years since its completion — as Portland has struggled with a crime surge — not a single inmate has set foot in the building." This is because the state can't afford to operate it — not because of any shortage of criminals. According to the Times, "Wapato is a mocking reminder of what crime-fighting in the Portland area could be — but isn't. For the last five years, an acute shortage of jail beds has forced police in the region — Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties — to systematically release inmates early to make room for new ones. Multnomah County last year released a record 5,000 criminals: drug dealers, burglars, car prowlers, and assorted con-men, many of them drug addicts or mentally ill. Police say the situation has fueled an explosion in property crimes and has increasingly meant the release of dangerous criminals."

The solution isn't to raise taxes or free more prisoners — at least, the just solution isn't. Both options inflict an even greater burden on the innocent citizen. The best solution would be to make criminals pay for their prison terms. On their release, they can be given a bill and they can pay back a certain amount each year.

Political economists might object that covering the costs of the internment and rehabilitation of criminals is just one of the programs that society pays taxes for. Criminals pay these taxes just like anyone else, and there's no reason they should have to pay any more. But only those who have wronged society add to these costs when they go to prison. More importantly, there is not an endless supply of money — as the Oregon case shows. Making criminals pay is an alternative to raising taxes, cutting other programs, or releasing criminals. If imprisoning criminals is becoming too expensive, criminals should be the ones who pay for it.

Another objection might be that criminals won't be able to pay their debt and this will make it harder for them to integrate back into society. That may be true, but why should criminals get an easy ride? Do a crime, do the time — and pay the bill. The prospect of a bill as well as a prison term will create another disincentive to commit a crime.

As the Nobel Laureate in economics Gary Becker famously argued almost four decades ago, criminals, like all humans, are rational and respond to incentives. The way to reduce crime is to ensure that the expected risk of a crime exceeds its expected benefits. Increasing the number of police officers, hiring more prosecutors, and giving stricter sentences increase the risk. Making criminals pay adds another disincentive — and one that doesn't involve spending more money. Instead, it saves taxpayers money. The alternative to making criminals pay — releasing criminals — meantime, creates an extra incentive to commit a crime.

White-collar criminals, cocaine-snorting Hollywood stars, and the like, can certainly afford to pay their bills. And for other, less affluent criminals, it needn't be a huge amount — say, just a few hundred dollars a year. Or they could pay back the money through community service — cleaning local parks and streets.

What about prisoners serving a life term like Moussaoui? How will the worst of the criminals — those who will never see the outside of a prison again — pay taxpayers back? How about making their family pay the cost? Make them take some responsibility for their failure in raising their children. This too is also likely to create an extra disincentive. While a criminal may not care about doing time — they're with friends, have a roof over their heads, and are given meals three times a day — they might care about the cost to their families.

Making criminals pay will add a disincentive to commit a crime, save the innocent money, and not force a choice between cutting programs or releasing criminals. And there is a benefit for the reformed criminal too: Once the money has been repaid, then they can really say they've paid their debt to society.

Daniel Freedman is online editor of The New York Sun and blogs at

By Daniel Freedman
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online

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