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Rising Incarceration Rate Isn't Reducing Crime, Says Report

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Crime is down. It's fallen dramatically in the United States over the last quarter of a century as the rate of incarceration is way up over that same period. But a new study by the Council of Economic Advisors says there is not a relationship between rising incarceration of convicted criminals and falling crime. Jason Furman is chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors and joins us from his office. Mr. Furman, thanks very much for being with us.

JASON FURMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So you don't believe that taking convicted criminals off the street reduces crime?

FURMAN: The question is whether taking sentences that are already long and making them even longer reduces crime. And the answer there is no.

SIMON: Well, follow that up. What's in the data that you've observed?

FURMAN: What's in the data is if you increase the sentence length by 10 percent, it has somewhere between a zero and very small impact on deterrence for crime. And the reason for that is if you're a criminal and considering whether to commit a crime and you know you might go to jail for 20 years or you know you might go to jail for 25 years, that's probably not going to result in a very big difference in terms of your behavior. In fact, the evidence is it matters barely at all.

The flipside though is when people are in prison, they lose their skills, attachment to the job market. And when they come out, it can actually increase the likelihood that they commit crime when they have a longer prison sentence. So you get effectively diminishing benefits in terms of deterrence and increase in costs in terms of recidivism. And the net effect is it doesn't reduce crime.

SIMON: I think there are a number of people that might - might agree or at least be receptive to your findings who have some problem though with the recommendation that the report makes, which is to raise the minimum wage. What relationship do you see between raising the minimum wage and trying to curtail crime?

FURMAN: The United Kingdom didn't used to have a national minimum wage. In 1999, they introduced one. And economists actually studied that experience and they found that low-wage areas saw really large reductions in crime and that high-wage areas actually didn't see much of a change in crime. Here in the United States, there have been several studies which have looked at wages in general and have found that for, you know, less educated, lower income men, there's a very strong relationship between higher wages and less crime.

SIMON: What about the concern though of some people that if you increase the minimum wage, one of the undesirable side effects is you might reduce the number of jobs?

FURMAN: There's been a range of economic research, and it's consistently found that for, you know, reasonable increases in a minimum wage, it has little or no effect on total employment. And the reason is that the cost for an employer rises but they also get a benefit of a worker who's more motivated, who is less likely to turn over and thus will do a better job with more productivity for them.

SIMON: Are you concerned that coming out with a minimum wage recommendation and being tied to sensitive issues like incarceration and unemployment makes this look like political document in an election year?

FURMAN: Absolutely not. I don't think we'd all agree on the minimum wage part of the recommendation. I think there probably would be a debate about that. But the broader argument, I think that's something that is widely accepted by experts across the political spectrum.

SIMON: Jason Furman, who heads the White House Council of Economic Advisors, thanks so much for being with us.

FURMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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