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The Insidious Costs of Crime

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With monetary issues now front and center in the crime debate, we have to consider costs and benefits of locking up the bad guys or letting them out.  One problem is that the full cost of letting them out (or the benefit of keeping them locked up) is impossible to measure.

A direct cost is borne by the people the predators prey upon.  Putting dollar values on crimes is dicey, but we can at least take a stab at it.  Other costs are even more difficult to quantify.  Suppose I buy a surveillance camera for my house for $300, a purchase made necessary by rising burglary rates, even though my house hasn't been hit yet.  That is $300 I don't have to spend on something else, such as a television, a vacation, or tuition.  The expenditure shows up equally in the GDP, but I have lost something in the quality of life by foregoing that other purchase.

Yesterday, I resumed taking public transportation to work after a hiatus, and I parked my car in the park-and-ride lot where I used to park it.  The other passengers promptly informed me that I was crazy to park there.  Smashed windows and thefts of car radios and entire cars are now rampant there.  All of the passengers who used to park there now either park at a less convenient stop or have family members drop them off.  There are costs to either alternative in lost time, but no economist can measure these costs.  Some other people, I am sure, have returned to driving their individual cars, with the impact on the environment that entails.  We can't measure that, either.

So we can't afford to keep "nonviolent" criminals locked up, the ones who merely smash your car window and rip out your stereo, wrecking your dash in the process.  This is an inefficient and ineffective use of resources, we are told.  Not only are we not incapacitating the ones we have caught, we are issuing an engraved invitation to others to get into the act, guaranteed that the consequences will not include incarceration.

Rehabilitation is not going to "fix" the window smashers.  People refrain from crime for basically two reasons: (1) their conscience will not allow them to do it; or (2) the penalty for doing it times the risk of capture is less than the gain.  No government program is going to instill a conscience in people who lack one, so reason (2) is the only one that government can change.

But now government cannot afford to perform the core function that is the reason we have government in the first place.  It can afford high-speed rail boondoggles, but it can't afford to lock up the guy who wrecks your car.  So the costs will be borne by the law-abiding people.  And many of these costs cannot be measured.

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