Could economics solve the prison crisis?

From Probation Journal

This study suggests that economists have a unique opportunity to help solve the prison crisis by bringing sophisticated economic modelling techniques to bear on the problem. Over the last decade prison numbers risen sharply in England and Wales and are set to rise further. As of January 2010 the prison population was calculated as 83,378. The conclusions support a move to devolving the budgets for custodials to groups of local authorities and suggest that Justice Reinvestment is an approach likely to lead to more effective criminal justice policies compared to incarceration for reducing re-offending.

To date, the government has made only limited investment in commissioning robust impact studies of criminal justice policies and programmes. A new approach is possible, driven not only by moral or social concerns about actual and perceived crime rates and a high prison population, but also informed by economic analysis and argument. The current economic climate makes this position hard to ignore. The authors urge the government to invest in more impact studies of key criminal justice interventions, particularly prison. They also want to see more cost-benefit analyses to inform policy, and continued capacity building, both within government and the wider research community, to undertake robust economic analyses of criminal justice policies and programmes.


This article considers important developments over the last decade which have laid the foundations for a new approach to criminal justice policy; an approach in which economic analysis is central. These developments include aspects of the policy debate on sentencing; the government’s commitment to evidence-based policy; investment in the economics profession across government; and the rise of the Justice Reinvestment movement. While many of the opportunities presented for economic analysis of sentencing policy have not yet been exploited, there is reason to believe that they will be over the next few years. Various reasons are discussed including the current economic situation, which makes increasingly untenable the continuing commitment of government to increasing prison capacity without consideration of more efficient alternatives. The article concludes by suggesting some steps that the new government might take to ensure that the benefits of an economically efficient approach to criminal justice policy are realized.

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Article details

Fox, C., & Albertson, K. (2010). Could economics solve the prison crisis? Probation Journal, 57 (3), 263-280 DOI: 10.1177/0264550510379883

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