On Tuesday, I wrote about the debate that’s raging over incarcerating convicts or releasing them to “community sentencing” programs of one type or another.  Proponents of community or alternative sentencing argue that we save tax dollars when people convicted of crimes get to stay at home for therapeutic or rehabilitative interventions instead of being removed from the community and sentenced to prison terms. 

However, these anti-incarceration advocates do not count the additional costs that arise whenever a person under “community control” (or a prisoner released early) commits more crime – costs that range from additional police and justice system expenses to the injury, fear, suffering, and financial losses experienced directly by their victims and indirectly by other community members.

A friend in Atlanta describes his own “aggregate burden of crime”  (I have removed some identifying details):

“When I first moved in, and the house was about to fall down, I was burglarized twice, believe it or not.  Looking at the condition of the house, you would have thought, this guy has nothing.  But, they came in twice anyway.  Didn’t take anything, because the boys next door heard them and ran them away.  I wasn’t there.  However, they had everything electronics in my suitcase, ready to go.

I then spent about $1,300 for the installation of the security system, and $28.95 a month for monitoring.  Later on, after I bought the TV, $1,300 for flat screen, which they took, I upgraded the system and cost me another $300 – $400 dollars.  J.W. had to come by and re-install the deadbolts that are keyed on both sides.  I know the argument about flippers on the inside lock (code for the city), but I changed them to keyed on the inside.

He charged me about $250.00 for everything, because he also drilled into the windows, with those metal cylinders to stop the opening of the windows.

Now, my nerves after those next two times of coming into my house almost made me sell the house and move.  But, to where?”

That’s $350 per year for home monitoring, $1,850 for installation of safety devices, and $1300 in losses.  Not to mention the home and auto insurance rates he must pay to live in the inner city, which are substantially higher than elsewhere; the high taxes he must pay to support the police and the courts, and the immutable fact that many offenders already live on the public dime, in subsidized housing with subsidized food and subsidized healthcare, all paid by the same people they victimize. 

And what cost do you put on peace of mind, after being broken into four times?

Those are the direct costs incurred by one victim who is surely not the only victim targeted by the offenders who broke into his house.  Does anyone break into only one stranger’s home?  This is not Les Misérables: they are not stealing bread to feed a starving child.  It is a lifestyle, one that simultaneously destroys the lifestyles of decent, compassionate, hard-working people like my friend. 

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Criminologists in America do calculate the “aggregate burden of crime” here, but these statistics (see here, here, and here) never make it into public debates or newspaper articles.  Why not?  Why is the debate about incarceration versus “community sentencing,” or “three strikes laws,” or other crime-stopping initiatives carried out without any acknowledgement of the financial burdens communities face when offenders are not incarcerated? 

In contrast, in Britain and Wales, the “Economic and Social Costs of Crime Against Individuals and Households” statistics have been part of the public debate about crime policy for several years.  Here are the official 2003/2004 numbers.  Costs counted include: physical and emotional impact on direct victims, value of property stolen, property damaged/destroyed, victim services, lost output (significant for murders), health services, criminal justice costs, and costs in anticipation of crime.

Rather than relying on the Pew Center Report, which deceptively promises vast savings every time a convict doesn’t go to prison, it’s time for American journalists to begin seeking out better data on recidivism, crime costs, and the actual effectiveness and expenses arising from drug courts, other community sentencing programs, and judges’ decisions to simply let offenders go without punishment.

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