Mass Incarceration in America: What’s the True Cost?

Laura Arroyo, HB

There are more people incarcerated in America today than there were slaves in 1850 (Muessig). Clearly, mass incarceration is a problem. There any many violent criminals who need to be locked up for the good of society. But what is the cost of keeping people in prison who don’t really need to be there? In beginning to answer this question, it’s important to consider opportunity cost, human capital, and the long term effects on the workforce.

First, what is opportunity cost? Investopedia defines it as “the difference in return between a chosen investment and one that is necessarily passed up” (“Opportunity”). In other words, it’s the thing you give up when you choose something else. The cost of keeping nonviolent offenders imprisoned unnecessarily is their contribution to the workforce, had they been released to be productive members of society. Sixty-one percent of prisoners are between the ages of 18 and 39 – “in the prime of their working life” (Bowling). By keeping these people out of the workforce, we as a nation are lowering our potential output. Although they aren’t technically included in the labor force, as institutionalized persons, once they are released from prison they have a high chance of becoming unemployed – and because it is very difficult for convicted felons to find jobs, odds are they’ll remain unemployed, keeping the country from reaching the full employment level of GDP.

In addition, keeping people imprisoned unnecessarily affects human capital. Charles Wheelan defines human capital as “the sum total of skills embodied within an individual: education, intelligence, charisma, creativity, work experience, entrepreneurial vigor” (Wheelan). Human capital is what makes progress happen, for society as a whole and for the individual. Prisoners, who, regardless of their crimes, do possess their own human capital, are wasting their talents and abilities when they’re not contributing them to the workforce. We are all missing out, hugely, without their contributions.

Finally, what is the effect on the economy in the long term? As thousands of prisoners are released, most likely over the course of a decade or less as time for drug crimes is served, they will enter the workforce. This will cause the potential output, and the full employment GDP, to increase. But as convicted felons are unable to find jobs, unemployment will increase. As unemployment increases, the demand for goods and services will fall. As demand falls, employees will be let go, causing even more unemployment.

Mass incarceration has no positive outcome. If we continue to keep low-level criminals who could otherwise contribute positively to society locked up, the economy – and all of America – will feel it sooner or later.


  1. Muessig, Ben. “Michelle Alexander: More Black Men Are In Prison Today Than Were Enslaved In 1850.” The Huffington Post. October 12, 2011. Accessed June 20, 2016.
  2. “Opportunity Cost Definition | Investopedia.” Investopedia. Accessed June 20, 2016.
  3. Bowling, Julia. “Mass Incarceration Gets Attention as an Economic Issue (Finally) | Brennan Center for Justice.” Mass Incarceration Gets Attention as an Economic Issue (Finally) | Brennan Center for Justice. September 13, 2013. Accessed June 20, 2016.
  4. Wheelan, Charles J., and Burton Gordon Malkiel. Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
  5. Salvato, Francis-Maria, Fr. “Pennsylvania Justice Project – Page 2 of 2 – The Wrongful Imprisonment of Timothy McEnany.” Pennsylvania Justice Project. September 1, 2014. Accessed June 20, 2016.

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