Max Ehrenfreund at the Washington Post reports on a fascinating new look at how to lower mass incarceration numbers.
Mass incarceration is failing to prevent crime, according to the Obama administration — so much so that the president’s staff is looking in a few unconventional places for new ideas on public safety.
For example, raising the federal minimum wage to $12 an hour could prevent as many as half a million crimes annually, according to a new report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, a group of economists and researchers charged with providing the president with analysis and advice on economic questions… The authors consider a few ways of reducing crime. They forecast that hiking the federal minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $12 would reduce crime by 3 percent to 5 percent, as fewer people would be forced to turn to illegal activity to make ends meet. By contrast, spending an additional $10 billion on incarceration — a massive increase — would reduce crime by only 1 percent to 4 percent, according to the report.
Of all the many reasons to raise the minimum wage, I have never once seen reduced incarceration mentioned as a benefit, so that’s certainly something to be added to the list.
But I also need to point out that America’s shameful incarceration rate is not a problem that can be fixed with strictly economic solutions. Much of our prison problem has to do with systematic racism, and many of the incarcerated were put there due to dumb, overly aggressive drug laws that target people of color and/or poor people. This is a problem that spans generations; it has ruined neighborhoods and families and many, many lives.
Resolving our problem with rampant incarceration is not going to happen with the passage of a single law. We need a suite of laws and policy on a national level to begin to address the problem—drug law reform, sentencing reform, reinstating voting rights for people who’ve done their time, finding ways to make re-entering the work force easier, encouraging programs that cut recidivism. Raising the minimum wage is important—if people make enough money to survive, they’re less likely to do something desperate that will force them into our criminal justice system in the first place—but it is only a first step in a very long journey that this country must agree to take.