Obama Administration Proposes New Approaches to Reduce Incarceration


President Obama announced new actions by the Justice Department focused on citizens returning home from prison and new research finding that changes in education spending and the minimum wage are more cost-effective public safety solutions than incarceration.

American taxpayers spend $80 billion each year to keep 2.2 million people locked up, the president said in a video released on Saturday to coincide with National Reentry Week (April 24-30). But locking people up doesn’t make communities safer, he said, and doesn’t deal with the conditions that led people to criminal activity in the first place or that cause them to return to prison after being released.

President Obama announced the release of a new report by the Council of Economic Advisers that documents the rise of mass incarceration in America and its disproportionate impact on communities of color.

The CEA used economic analysis to evaluate criminal justice policies by weighing the crime-reduction benefits against direct and indirect costs. It found that increased incarceration fails the cost-benefit test, and that investments in education, police hiring, and wages are more effective than incarceration at reducing crime.

The report documents new research showing that a 10 percent increase in the high school graduation rate leads to a 9 percent drop in arrest rates, and a 10 percent increase in wages for non-college educated men leads to a 10 to 20 percent reduction in crime rates. The CEA’s analysis found that raising the minimum wage to $12 by 2020 would result in a 3 to 5 percent crime decrease and a societal benefit of $8 to $17 billion dollars.

The CEA also found that longer periods of incarceration increase recidivism, a problem that the Justice Department is highlighting this week with resource fairs, employment events, and other activities in every state focused on strengthening reentry. The department announced new guidelines for reforming reentry programs in the federal Bureau of Prisons, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch called on states to help people leaving federal prison in getting government-issued identification, which she described as “critical to successful reentry.”

Each year, more than 600,000 people are released from prison. President Obama said that his administration is working to ensure that job applicants with a criminal history have a fair shot at obtaining federal employment and urged businesses to hire returning citizens who have earned a second chance. And he renewed his request for Congress to pass bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation.

“This isn’t just about what makes economic and practical sense,” the president concluded. “It’s about making sure that we live up to our ideals as a nation.”

Investments in education, police hiring, and wages are more effective than incarceration at reducing crime.