Unintended Consequences of a Drop in the Crime Rate

This post is somewhat connected to yesterday’s post that looked at the concept of restorative justice.

One of the possible benefits of restorative justice and other types of prison reform measures is that there will be fewer people spending time in prison. Taking care of prisoners is expensive, and by reducing that population, federal and local governments can save money. In addition the more people there are in prison, and the longer they stay there, that is fewer productive citizens paying taxes from their wages.

Thus, I am in favor of most, if not all, of the prison reform initiatives I have read about.

However, there was an interesting story in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer that looked at the state of prisons in Pennsylvania.

One point it made is that there is often a mismatch between where prisoners are from and where they are placed; making it difficult for family and friends to visit them. That is unfortunate, since studies show that recidivism is 10 percent less for prisoners that get visitors.

The second point the story made, and the one that really got me thinking is that there are some people who would almost prefer that the prison population not decline, at least at the prison in their hometown. The reason is that many of the prisons are in rural communities, and the prison is often the biggest employer in town. Having a prison shut down could be devastating to such a community. The tax base would decline, small businesses that relied on the prison and its employees and visitors may need to close, and where would all the prison employees go?

Now I don’t think people really want to see more crime so that there are more prisoners (at least I hope so). They would likely prefer that there are fewer prisoners, but in a reverse NIMBY kind of way. They want to see fewer prisoners at other prisons around the state, but not at the one in their backyard.

One of the reasons the article captured my attention is that I had always thought that communities would fight NOT to have prions in their backyard, but it is apparently just the opposite. Many of the rural communities that were perhaps struggling economically seemed to welcome having the prisons, and now they don’t want to see them closed. Or even if they were against the prison being built in their town, they now see the positive financial impact of having the prison.

So what to do about these unintended consequences of closing a prison?

I want to see crime rates drop, like most people, which would lead to a decrease in prison populations. But is there a way to do it that would not harm a local community that may see its prison shut down?

Are there alternative uses for a prison?

I just read that for the first time, there are more job openings than there are jobless people. I realize that there are mismatches between where those people are and where the jobs are, but part of the solution may be a need for people to be more mobile. I am also sure there is a mismatch between the skills needed for many jobs, and the skills available. But that’s where job training and education come in. Perhaps a closed prison could be used as a training center for service and manufacturing jobs.

I obviously don’t have the answer, but it is a question that needs to be addressed.

Who would have thought that there is a strange kind of incentive to NOT want to reduce the crime rate?

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