Connecticut's General Assembly is considering some of the most comprehensive criminal justice reforms in a generation. Many of the proposals are targeted at increasing the sentences for individuals accused of certain crimes and some call for increases in mandatory minimum sentences for serious repeat offenders. All of them share the laudable goal of attempting to reduce criminal conduct and enhance public safety in our communities. They also share another common feature: they cost money.
The legislature's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis has estimated that the reforms proposed could potentially cost Connecticut's taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. The costs of the proposed reforms range from the relatively modest costs of mandating psychiatric exams for certain inmates coming up for parole, estimated at $232,000 a year, to authorizing bonding to build two new correctional facilities at a cost of $400million spread over 20 years. With the release of the fiscal agency's report, the debate has begun on how much Connecticut can really afford to spend on criminal justice reform.
Unfortunately, the debate so far has ignored one key facet of this cost calculation. Namely, that crime is enormously expensive to victims and to society as a whole. Effective criminal justice reform also reduces the cost of crime.
Victims pay the monetary costs of crime in medical bills, lost valuables and missed work. A National Institute of Justice research report determined that violent crime causes 3 percent of medical spending and 14 percent of injury-related medical spending. As much as 10 to 20 percent of mental health care expenditures in the United States result from individuals having been victimized by criminal conduct, about half of which is spent on treatment for mental health problems stemming from child abuse.
In fact, violent crime results in wage losses equivalent to 1 percent of all American earnings. None of this takes into consideration the devastating, often life-changing noneconomic impact crime has on its victims.
Although the cost of crime to victims is high, its cost to society is staggering. In calculating the total cost of criminal activity to our society, a 1999 economic analysis published in the University of Chicago's Journal of Law and Economics calculated that criminal conduct costs our economy a staggering $1.7 trillion a year. If we wanted to consider the total cost of crime as a tax, this would amount to a per capita burden of over $5,000 for every man, woman and child in America. This is considerably more than the current average state income tax burden for a Connecticut resident.
Unfortunately, the fiscal aspect of the current debate is focused only on the immediate costs of the proposed reforms. It fails to account for the enormous economic price we are already paying as a result of criminal activity and the enormous potential savings to our state if the proposed reforms are able to reduce crime. When the real economic costs of crime are taken into account, the potential costs of the reforms appear quite modest.
Effective criminal justice reform may cost money in the short run, but could very well be the best investment the legislature could make in the long run. Reductions in crime will reduce medical expenditures, mental health care costs and insurance rates. In fact, reductions of crime in urban areas can even lead to increases in property values and lower mill rates.
It's not possible to put a dollar amount on the life of the child who wasn't murdered because the man who would have killed him was kept in prison because a pre-parole psychiatric interview revealed that he remained an imminent threat to the community; or to calculate the money saved when a woman wasn't raped because the man who would have raped her was serving a longer sentence than he otherwise would have.
Nonetheless, these are the intangibles that the legislature must presently consider. When they do that bookkeeping, I hope that they remember that the money we spend on making ourselves safer isn't simply money lost to a bureaucracy. It's a tangible investment that will pay us benefits for generations to come.
Brian Preleski is a senior assistant state's attorney in New Britain and president of the Connecticut Association of Prosecutors.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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