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Annual Economics Conference Highlights Mass Incarceration

How America’s vast criminal justice system harms us all was spotlighted at the world’s largest meeting of economists.

  • Matthew Friedman
March 8, 2017

Every year, the Allied Social Science Association (ASSA) hosts the world’s largest gathering of economists, averaging more than 13,000 attendees from all around the world. This year’s event took place this past January, in Chicago.

As usual, there was ample discussion of interest rates, GDP growth, and wage gaps. Nobel laureates grappled with one another over the impact of economic stimulus and monetary policy.

Unlike past conferences, though, dozens of economists attended to discuss mass incarceration, a topic that might seem out of place for the event. It’s a remarkable change from a decade ago, when not a single paper, panel, or poster presented at the conference dealt with it.

Mass incarceration is now recognized society-wide as a legitimate and significant economic issue. Not only does it affect GDP and labor, but economic principles like cost-benefit analysis can help inform possible solutions. America now spends more money to lock up its own citizens than most counties allocate towards fighting foreign threats, surpassing  the national defense budgets of all but two nations (the U.S. and China).

In light of the substantial resources being allocated towards it, it is only natural that experts would ask whether our criminal justice system achieves its goals.

The Brennan Center has helped lead the way in exploring this question, launching a track of research on the topic and forming an Economic Advisory Board to engage leading economists from across the political spectrum. The board aims to develop a broader understanding of how mass incarceration depresses the economy, and how the criminal justice system can be changed for the better.

Last year, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), Brennan Center, and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted an event bringing together leading experts to discuss the application of economics to criminal justice reform. That event catalogued at length the “unintended consequences, failed policies and heartbreaking waste” associated with America’s criminal justice system.

This year’s ASSA conference pushed the conversation further. As the Brennan Center’s Economics Fellow, I moderated a conversation on “the criminal justice system’s impact on employment, equality, and growth” and previewed our upcoming research on the topic. Over a period of two hours we dived into nearly half-a-dozen major topics of interest, highlighting the academic consensus that, for example, harsh sentences do not effectively deter crime. The discussion revealed a broad agreement among economists that current criminal justice policies are ripe for improvement, and that economic tools have a role to play in devising policy solutions.

Other experts held similar conversations, presenting their findings in sessions titled “Peer Effects in the Criminal Justice System” and “Economics of Crime,” reflecting a new way of thinking about how our society enforces laws and punishes those who break them. Historically, the traditions of legal and sociological thought have pushed us to talk about the imprisonment of fellow citizens with terms like “justice,” “equality,” and “fairness.” The sheer scale of America’s use of incapacitation through detention as a criminal sanction has made it necessary to now think about this problem in terms of “efficiency.”

One of the most talked-about topics was new research on the efficacy and unintended consequences of so-called “Ban the Box” laws. Research by Daniel Shoag, a Harvard University economist, and his co-author Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute, showed that “ban-the-box: regulations increase employment of residents living in high-crime areas. However, the results were not unequivocal: they found that employers tended to raise experience requirements in the wake of such laws. This unintended effect may explain why Jennifer Doleac and Ben Hansen, two economists whose work appeared in a different session at the ASSA conference, found that in some cases ‘ban-the-box’ regulations diminished the employment prospects of young, low-skilled black and Hispanic men without a record of criminal activity.

The attention economists heaped on these issues signals a growing recognition that mass incarceration can and should be looked at through an economic lens. This year’s conference was a chance for some of America’s brightest minds to think critically about and define how, rather than what, policymakers ought to think about America’s criminal justice system.

As more scientific resources and public attention is directed toward issues related to mass incarceration, we will be better equipped to understand its consequences and better prepared to mitigate them with precisely designed policy interventions. 

Photo credit: American Economic Association