Details from the report:
For example, in 2009, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy ("WSIPP") evaluated the effect of a 2003 law that increased "earned early release time" for offenders who exhibited good behavior in prison. WSIPP's cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that by allowing offenders to earn 'credit' for earlier release, the new law (1) shortened the length of prison stays by 63 days on average, which reduced prison costs; (2) decreased recidivism rates by 3.5 percent; and (3) and increased long-term earnings for released prisoners. Overall, the program generated a net social benefit of $1.88 per dollar of cost.
More details from the report:
The North Carolina Youth Accountability Planning Task Force worked on the project with the Vera Institute for Justice, an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming criminal justice practices and institutions. They assessed the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of to transfering 16- and 17-year-old misdemeanants and low-level nonviolent felons to the juvenile system. Analysts determined that the plan's total cost to taxpayers would be $70.9 million per year, which included the costs of law enforcement, court administration, and other expenses.
On the other hand, the total benefits to taxpayers and to the juveniles affected by the program would be $123.1 million per year, consisting of cost-savings to the adult system, reduced costs of victimization, and the long-term benefits to society arising from having fewer youths with adult criminal records (such records markedly decrease employability and long-term earnings potential). Subtracting the costs from benefits, Vera and its partners concluded that the program would generate a net benefit of $52.3 million per year.
There are two main challenges that cost-benefit advocates face. One is practical. To achieve more rigorous results, you need to spend time and energy developing "hard, quantitative evidence" -- and that costs money. Garbage in, garbage out, right? From the report:
Significant gaps in the literature must be filled before robust cost-benefit analysis can be conducted for many criminal justice policies and interventions. Numerous public and private institutions are already dedicated to improving the body of scientific knowledge upon which criminal justice decisions can be made, but they need substantial financial support in order to broaden their findings and confirm the validity of preliminary results. The central reason why research gaps persist is a lack of adequate funding.
It's a chicken-and-egg problem. State and local governments, and the feds, have to invest in the research that will reveal where and how the future cost-savings will occur. But no one wants to spend money now on some long-term project. Why? That brings us to the second problem the cost-benefitters must face. Its a political problem. And mostly a partisan one. From the report:
Charges of being "soft on crime" can have serious political repercussions. To avoid this fate, politicians have adopted "get tough" stances on crime, favoring harsher penalties in the form of three strikes laws, mandatory minimums, and longer sentences. Anecdotal evidence and sensational headlines have driven this trend, and public support seems to affirm the longstanding conventional wisdom that being uncompromisingly "tough on crime" gets votes.
Thus, there are political disincentives to adopt new approaches, and supporting new evidence-based methods may be perceived to entail some political risk. Additionally, institutional constraints may act as obstacles to long-term criminal justice reform. Legislators may be reluctant to take actions when the benefits of those actions will not be felt until after the next election cycle; this is especially true in situations where those actions may generate short-term financial or political costs.
It's been 23 years now since George H.W. Bush used the infamous "Willie Horton" campaign advertisement to portray Michael Dukakis as "soft on crime." It's been nearly twice that long since the so-called "silent majority" took back the streets. Violent crime is down. But generations of Americans have come and gone accepting the shibboleth that the easiest answer about criminal justice -- lock 'em up and throw away the key -- is the best answer about criminal justice.