Top Economists at White House Explain How Mass Incarceration Hurts the Economy

April 25, 2016

America’s out-of-control system of mass incarceration is a tremendous drain on our nation’s economy — but there are several cost-effective ways to reduce crime and incarceration rates, members of the Brennan Center's Economic Advisory Board said at a White House event Monday.

The discussion was held in collaboration with the White House, the Economic Advisory Board of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Video of the event is below and can be found here

The Brennan Center’s Economic Advisory Board is a bipartisan group of 10 top economists and includes former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, among other professors and political advisors. The group came together in February to support the Center’s data-driven approach to ending mass incarceration.

Brennan Center Board members Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Peter Orszag joined senior administration officials and experts to discuss a new report from the President’s Council of Economic Advisers assessing the economic impact of the criminal justice system.

The group, including Council Chairman Jason Furman and Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, said current policies do not make best use of limited resources. Instead, they advocated for smarter policing, and more job training and reentry programs. Other speakers included Brennan Center President Michael Waldman, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks, Third Point LCC Founder and CEO Daniel Loeb, Center for American Progress Director of Criminal Justice Policy Todd Cox, and The Economist's David Rennie, who moderated the discussion. 

“America’s criminal justice system is a burden on the economy,” said Dr. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a member of the Brennan Center’s Economic Advisory Board, president of the American Action Forum, and a former economic advisor to John McCain. “Not only do taxpayers spend billions per year to send people to prison for far too long. This time in prison also means lost income for families and lost job prospects upon release, which create disruptions to our economy and labor force.” 

“The government should fund policies that are proven to work instead of funding ones that don’t,” said Dr. Peter Orszag, a Brennan Center Economic Advisory Board member and the former Congressional Budget Office director. “The evidence strongly suggests certainty of punishment is more important than its severity in fighting crime, and that we can reduce recidivism through targeted support for those exiting incarceration. So we need to devote resources to smart policing, reentry programs, and treatment — not funneling more money into longer prison sentences. There are much better ways to reduce crime while promoting economic opportunity and public safety.”

“There is no question that mass incarceration is a drain on the American economy,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Today’s event shows that mass incarceration is not only a racial justice issue, but an economic one as well, with far-reaching consequences that the country is only now beginning to understand.”

“Our society pays an enormous material price for mass incarceration,” said Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. “It creates an enormous amount of economic inefficiency. As much as it pains me as an economist to admit it, this really isn’t about the money… The economic case for reform is really just a proxy for something much deeper, that we talked about here today.”

The Brennan Center will release a study on the economic impact of the criminal justice system later this year. The study will include original research documenting the impacts of the criminal justice system on employment and the country’s overall economic health.

Members of the Brennan Center’s Economic Advisory Board will participate in the final analysis of that study.