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Why We Need Prison Reform: Victimless Crimes Are 86% of the Federal Prison Population

When we talk about the war on drugs, which is increasingly turning into a real war, we often overlook the fact that the "criminals" involved in the drug trade aren't actually violating anyone's rights. When a drug dealer is hauled before a judge, there is no victim standing behind the prosecutor claiming damages. Everyone participating in the drug trade does so voluntarily. However, there are a lot more crimes for which this is also true. Millions upon millions of Americans have been thrown into cages without a victim ever claiming damages. It is important to look at the burden this mass level of incarceration places upon our society.

In light of that, let us review some statistics which demonstrate just how destructive the mass incarceration of victimless criminals has become to our society. The 2009 federal prison population consisted of criminals who committed these crimes:

  • Drugs 50.7%
  • Public-order 35.0%,
  • Violent 7.9%
  • Property 5.8%
  • Other .7%

Drug offenses are self-explanatory as being victimless, but so too are public-order offenses, which also fall under the victimless crimes category. Public order offenses include such things as immigration, weapons charges, public drunkenness, selling lemonade without a license, dancing in public, feeding the homeless without a permit. etc....

The United States has the highest prison population rate in the world. Presently 756 per 100,000 of the national population is behind bars. This is in contrast to an average world per-capita prison population rate of 145 per 100,000 (158 per 100,000 if set against a world prison population of 10.65 million), based on 2008 United Nations population data. In other words, the U.S. incarcerates its citizens at a rate that is 5 times the world average.

In 2008, according to the Department of Justice, there were 7,308,200 persons in the U.S. corrections system, of whom 4,270,917 were on probation, 828,169 were on parole, 785,556 were in jails, and 1,518,559 were in state and federal prisons. This means that the U.S. alone is responsible for holding roughly 15% of all the prisoners in the world.

In other words, 1 in 42 Americans is under correctional supervision. This constitutes over 2% of the entire U.S. population. That percentage jumps up drastically if we limit the comparison to working aged adult males, of which there are around 100 million. Over 5% of the adult male population is under some form of correctional supervision, alternatively stated, 1 in 20 adult males are under correctional supervision in the U.S.

According to 2006 statistics, 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men are behind bars, as are 1 in 15 adult black men.  If we limit the data to black males between the ages 20 to 34, 1 in 9 are behind bars. Keep in mind that 86% of those men in federal prisons are there for victimless crimes. They have not stolen any property, damaged any property or harmed anyone directly by their actions. Of course, if you are reading this and live in the U.S., you are paying for all those people to subsist on a daily basis. Roughly 34% of all prisoners in the U.S. are incarcerated for victimless crimes.

In California in 2009 it cost an average of $47,102 a year to incarcerate an inmate in state prison. In 2005 it cost an average of $23,876 per state prisoner nationally. In 2007, $228 billion was spent on police, corrections and the judiciary. That constitutes around 1.6% of total U.S. GDP.

Of course, being the good economists that we are, we must not just look at the cost to incarcerate and police, but also at the opportunity cost to society that putting all those able-bodied men behind bars creates. When a man is put behind bars he is obviously incapable of contributing anything to society.  He becomes a complete burden to society while producing nothing in return for the expenses he creates. He becomes a black void of resource destruction. It's important to remember that money's value is directly related to the consumer goods that a society produces. If a society produces nothing of value, the money it uses will also be worth nothing of value. If a huge portion of able-bodied workers is locked behind bars, society is effectively penalized twice: once for the resources that are diverted into the prison industry and it is penalized again for the opportunity cost of the lost labor of those prisoners.

I find some dark humor in the fact that those who engage in victimless crime don't create any real victims until they are put behind bars, at which point they cause the state to steal $47,000 a year from the tax paying public. In our justice system today, victims are victimized twice; once by the perpetrator of the crime against them, and the other by the state which then forces the victim to pay for the punishment of their assailant. Clearly our society's notion of "justice" is logically ridiculous. It's apparently not OK for someone to steal from you, but its perfectly acceptable for the State to steal from you if the state is going to use that money to punish the person who stole from you. What kind of asinine system of justice is that?

What is justice? Isn't justice making a victim whole once again? Isn't justice punishing a criminal for the damages he imposed upon his victims? I propose that the only real justice that can be enacted in a free society is monetary punishment in the form of taking the perpetrators property and handing it to their victim, or ostracism by defamation of character.

I know some people will cry that under such a system violent criminals will be left free to roam the streets, but isn't that what our system is doing now? Consider that if a man commits a violent crime today, he is put behind bars for some arbitrary length of time with hundreds of other violent criminals, after which he is released back on to the streets. Do you think that criminal is going to be more dangerous to society after spending years locked in a cage with other violent criminals or less dangerous? Numerous studies show that prison either increases, or has no impact on, recidivism.  Thus, it all comes down to punishment. Isn't being branded a criminal, along with monetary punishment to make a victim whole once again, enough? How difficult do you think your life would be if you were convicted of murder, everyone knew about it and half your assets and income were being handed to your victim's family? The rest of your life would be a living hell.

Putting people behind bars does nothing but squander resources. It deprives society of able-bodied workers and costs society massive amounts of resources which are stolen from the general public through the coercive theft of taxation. Consider how much richer American society would be today if it had an additional 5% of the male population working to produce goods and services in the private sector labor force.

Economist David Friedman has put together a fantastic presentation on how society could be organized in such a way as to eliminate all victimless crime while simultaneously eliminating the necessity of the State to steal from the victims of crimes to pay for their assailants punishment. After you're done watching Friedman's presentation, check out this fantastic comic put together by the Real Cost of Prisons project.

If you are interested in learning more about private law and private defense, listen to this series of essays by economist Robert Murphy and this lecture by economist Hans Hoppe.

The statistics cited in this article can be verified at Drug War Facts.org

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