This recent Washington Post article about paying criminals really got me thinking. You should read the whole article, but what it is basically reporting is that some cities are considering paying criminals not to commit crime. This might seem counter-intuitive, but from a moral and fiscal point of view it makes sense. Violent crime is incredibly expensive for society to deal with and if we can incentivize people not to commit violent crimes then we would be better off.
So, how could this work and how much money could we save?
That’s a difficult question. Researchers at Iowa State came up with some figures and they say each murder costs society about $17 million. This includes things that are fairly easy to measure like cost of the investigation, trial, and imprisonment but this figure also includes costs that are more difficult to measure like a societies willingness to prevent crime, lost wages and productivity, etc.
Lets say we use a much more conservative estimate for the cost to deal with murder, say $5 million and we decide that paying likely violent criminals $1,000 per month in cash to be peaceful is enough incentive to prevent future violence, and let’s add another $500 per month per individual to invest in job training, mentorships, and other programs to provide stability. The latter is especially important to help prevent recidivism.
With these guesstimate numbers (conservative cost of a murder in society and liberal benefits to likely criminals) it would make financial sense to pay 277 likely criminals if it prevented one murder each year. But, the cost savings would actually be much higher because more common violent crimes (assault, burglary, etc) are not factored into the savings. If we use a more liberal cost of murder ($17 million) and a more conservative total benefits for likely violent criminals ($1,000 total investment) the number of individuals we can support is around 1,400 to prevent one murder.
I think identifying the best individuals to enter this program is part of the difficulty. Individuals with a history of violence are the prime candidates, so maybe those that have already been convicted of violent crimes. This type of system could work in cooperation with early release programs. This would prevent people from trying to join the program who aren’t really threats or from becoming violent just to get in the program (it seems unlikely that a person is willing to assault someone and spend a couple of years in jail just because they might get into the program).
The real key is to provide individuals with financial stability and opportunities to better their lives through education, entrepreneurship, and community investment. Dumping individuals back on the streets after they commit a crime and expecting them to just straighten up when they can’t find a job, have no marketable skills, are ineligible to get educational benefits, etc is only going to make things worse.
And maybe, with some success in programs like this, we can use income guarantees to help other people who could save society money if they had a financial foundation. Families who have the resources to further their education, seek preventative care instead of using emergency rooms, and who can invest in bulk purchases of food will save tax-dollars in the long run. Though, funding these programs from the beginning will be difficult. We will likely need to take money away from prisons and law enforcement. Measuring the success is also difficult, it is hard to prove that something prevented a crime specifically or saved a certain amount of money without years of data.
Anyway, I think this program (and most Basic Income Guarantees) would pay for itself mostly from the money we save. Oh, and maybe this will also save someone’s life. If you care about programs that help people instead of just what is the most cost efficient.