Why Fighting Crime in the U.S. Costs More than the Iraq War


--"For the safety of the people is the supreme law" -Cicero

NEW YORK (MainStreet)—This admonition is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. Yet, some in America believe safety can be accomplished on the cheap. They do so because they neglect to consider the true cost of crime. The public safety, as well as the public treasury and private fortune may suffer because of their plans.

But as recent research indicates, it might be a better idea to devote more resources for crime control than devote fewer. The return on investment is high.

Debates about crime usually involve arcane social theories of causation. The polemics are usually reserved for the likes of politicians, judges, lawyers, police, corrections officials, prison reform groups, victims' rights groups and social welfare organizations. Essentially, any person or entity directly engaged in the criminal justice Indeed, one researcher compared the annual cost of crime to the total cost of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars plus foreign military aid.

Rarely are business people interested in criminal justice policy. One reason for this detachment is that they never know what the cost is. Business people like to know the cost and benefits. When it comes to crime, the intelligentsia rarely, if ever, studies what the cost of crime is.

But recently this has changed. More emphasis is being put on the cost of punishment. Why? Because prison reform groups - and organizations that prefer abolishing prisons altogether rather than to simply reform them – seek to enlist the aid of fiscal conservatives. The idea of decreasing prison populations is trendy among conservatives. This has led to the irony of people such as Fox Butterfield, the very liberal former New York Times reporter, being aligned with the arch-conservative, anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist.

Ergo more focus is being placed to ascertain what crime costs. Academics and others have done more studies about it. Their conclusion, across the board, is that crime is expensive. It affects the public treasury as much as it does the private pocketbook.

One such study was published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine of the National Institute of Health (NIH). The authors--Kathryn E. McCollister and Hai Fang from the University of Miami and Hai Fang from the University of Colorado Denver--detailed crime's costs, both tangible and intangible.

Their research showed the following: "Crime generates substantial costs to society at individual, community and national levels. In the United States, more than 23 million criminal offenses were committed in 2007, resulting in approximately $15 billion in economic losses to the victims and $179 billion in government expenditures on police protection, judicial and legal activities, and corrections (U.S. Department of Justice, 2004a, 2007a, 2008). Programs that directly or indirectly prevent crime can therefore generate substantial economic benefits by reducing crime-related costs incurred by victims, communities, and the criminal justice system."

They estimated the total cost of crime (2008 dollars) - itemized by offense - to be:


Offense | A)Tangible Cost | B) Intangible Cost | C) Total Cost

  • Murder A) $1,285,146 B) $8,442,000 C) $8,982,907
  • Rape/Sexual Assault A) $41,252 B) 199,642 C) $240,776
  • Aggravated Assault A) $19,472 B) $95,023 C) $107,020
  • Robbery A) $21,373 B) $22,575 C) $42,310
  • Arson A) $16,429 B) $5,133 C) $21,103
  • Motor Vehicle Theft A) $10,534 B) $262 C) $10,772
  • Stolen Property A) $7,974 B) N/A C) $7,974
  • Household Burglary A) $6,169 B) $321 C) $6,462
  • Embezzlement A) $5,480 B) N/A C) $5,480
  • Forgery and Counterfeiting A) $5,265 B) N/A C) $5,265
  • Fraud A) $5,032 B) N/A C) $5,032
  • Vandalism A) $4,860 B) N/A C) $4,860
  • Larceny/Theft A) $3,523 B)$10 C) $3,532


Another study, by David A. Anderson, an economics professor at Centre College, Danville, Ky., which was published by the University of Chicago's Journal of Law and Economics, makes some rather enlightening comparisons. He noted that the annual cost of crime increased from $2.4 trillion in the mid-1990's to $3.2 trillion in 2012 (2012 dollars). This occurred despite the fact that from 1995 to 2010 there was a 53% decrease in crime.

Anderson also makes the startling analogy between what crime costs and defense expenditures. His research concluded that the total annual cost of crime is roughly equivalent to the $3.2 trillion total cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq plus American military aid to Pakistan from 2001 to 2011.

Criminals, according to Anderson, cause $1.655 trillion in lost productivity, while acquiring an estimated $1.5 trillion in assets from their victims. The per capita cost is approximately $5,284.

Furthermore, the estimated cost of crime exceeds the expenditures for medical services and is near the total amount of mortgage debt.

This research makes it clear that the price tag of crime is an encumbrance on American society for all citizens– not just crime victims. Anderson's writing cites, for example, costs such as private security, fences, alarm systems, computer security software, safe deposit boxes; insurance, safety lighting, lethal and nonlethal weapons, martial arts courses and other goods and services as expenditures that are caused by crime.

Crime is a hidden tax that increases the cost-of-living for everyone. It has a deleterious effect on Americans' quality of life - emotionally, socially and financially. Capital investment into the criminal justice infrastructure by constructing prisons, hiring more police, more sophisticated corrections, probation and parole will yield a tremendous dividend.

But the corollary to this is supervision. Just as a corporation needs a diligent board of directors, the criminal justice system needs diligent leaders.

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet

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