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If We Prevent Crime, We Can Build Fewer Prisons

It's not just police who are trying to figure out how to stop crime--scientists struggle with this problem as well. Now accountants are getting into the act, because one of the big questions today is whether or not it will cost less in the long run to try to prevent crimes before they happen, even if it means creating costly social programs in order to dissuade people from breaking the law.

Prison expense is a major problem in the UK as well, and officials there are studying the results of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP). Washington State may need three new prisons by 2030 if its jail population follows current trends, with each prison costing $250 million to build and $45 million per year to run.

WSIPP is trying to reduce the prison population by reducing the crime that sends people to prison. They are using statistical analysis on each proposed intervention, to try to determine which are the most effective, in terms of reduced crime and reduced costs.

In New Scientist, Peter Aldhous reports that some interventions with young offenders are particularly effective, such as "multidimensional treatment foster care" (MTFC), in which juvenile offenders are placed with foster families and treated with behavioral therapy. So far, this has reduced crime by an average of 22%, giving a net benefit of almost $78,000 over 13 years for each offender treated. By contrast, there is no evidence that electronic tagging of adult offenders instead of putting them in prison helps to prevent crime.

However, putting people who commit crimes in jail definitely helps reduce the crime rate. According to Aldhous, "WSIPP calculates that boosting the prison population by 10% can cut crime by up to 4%. However, it is expensive, and the returns diminish as more offenders are put inside."

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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