We Don’t Need Mass Incarceration to Reduce Crime

Daniel J. D’Amico is the associate director of the Political Theory Project and lecturer in economics at Brown University, where he teaches and coordinates student programs dedicated to invigorating the study of institutions and ideas that make societies free, prosperous, and fair. His current research focuses on punishment and incarceration throughout history and around the world.

We recently got a chance to sit down with Dr. D’Amico to talk about crime, punishment, and the opposite of freedom.

Freeman: Do you think we’re locking up too many people?

D’Amico: I used to think that the answer to this question was an obvious yes, but now I think it’s a lot more complicated.

My concerns about overincarceration paired with an appreciation for market economies seems odd to most readers. 

I’m not a philosopher, so it’s sort of above my pay grade to definitively assess the moral aspects of our punishment system. That being said, it does seem obvious that any system can make errors of excess. It also seems reasonable that the larger a system is, the more errors it will likely commit. Thus, on net, our system probably imposes incarceration unjustly on individuals more often than smaller systems do.

Freeman: So is “more” too much?

D’Amico: Understanding if our system is systemically excessive is a bit more complicated. To say yes as a matter of efficiency implies some preferable alternative system is known and viable at lower social costs. This is less obvious.

I do not think that incarceration is an effective response to social problems associated with the drug trade and drug abuse. But as for understanding the US incarceration rate, simply noting that we outpace other countries, even vastly so, does not itself imply that an alternative outcome is feasible or of lesser consequences.