The old divide between hard and soft strategies is breaking down under a wave of new thinking about how to control crime.What is the more cost-effective way to control crime? Is it to focus on making crime unattractive by threatening offenders with long prison terms? Or to make the law-abiding life more attractive by providing better education and job opportunities? It’s an old debate. The federal crime commissions of the 1960s emphasized crime’s links with poverty and racism, and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs were central to his war on crime. But ultimately the “hawks” won the debate about how to wage that war, as they did later in helping to launch President Richard M. Nixon’s war on drugs. The result has been plain to see, with the rate of imprisonment surging to unprecedented heights.
Now the debate has been reopened. It is not so much that the public views mass incarceration, with its disproportionately high levels of imprisonment for blacks and Hispanics, as immoral or racist. Rather, the dreary fact is that, in the face of gaping budget deficits, the states can no longer afford to support huge prison populations. It seems like a good time for the economists to weigh in, in part because their perspective provides a way to get past the stale debates over whether to adopt “tough” or “soft” solutions.