top of page
  • Lewis Waring

Economics of Rehabilitation - Lewis Waring

Day after day, the criminal justice system ticks forward like an industry: bail must be set, evidence must be excluded, and verdicts must be reached. Every step in court procedure takes time and costs money. Canada’s total criminal court costs in 2001 were estimated to be $672,392,760 and total prosecution costs were $528,249,551. In other words, Canada spends about one billion dollars on the court system in 2001. The end result of this investment is the production of a verdict of “guilty” or else “not guilty”.

When individuals are found guilty, they often end up in prison, where the state’s investment in criminal justice soars. Canada’s total adult and youth correction costs in 2001 were $4,836,224,546. Yet, whereas the product of Canada’s investment in its court system is ideally a fair trial that reveals and decides whether an individual is guilty or not guilty, the product of the prison system is less obvious. At the very least, the prison system does not produce anything that you could hold in your hand.

Yet, for about five billion dollars per year, it is clear that the prison system produces something for the Canadian public. At minimum, prisons produce a feeling of justice for the victims of crime and the community as a whole. Also, prisons clearly produce a warning to those considering whether or not to break the law. Furthermore, prisons produce punishment almost by definition. Lastly, prisons produce a possibility that criminals might be transformed into law-abiding citizens and thus be rehabilitated. These are thus four indisputable products of the prison system: justice for victims, warnings to the general public, punishment, and rehabilitation.

Producing the Products of the Criminal Justice System

Some of the products of the criminal justice system are easier to produce than others. Justice for victims is produced in an instant before the criminal steps foot into prison. When a criminal is deemed guilty and sentenced to the satisfaction of the victim, his or her community, and the public at large, “justice is served”. The product is a feeling that the system has responded to a wrong correctly, that the wrong has been righted and, as the Bible or secular common sense may require, an eye has been given for an eye taken.

The state’s message that members of the public should avoid crime is arguably produced by the mere existence of the institution of prison. The existence of prison clearly causes second thoughts for many of those tempted to commit crimes. Although the mere existence of prison has never been enough to deter all members of the public at all times from committing crimes, the existence of prisons clearly convinces some to avoid crime sometimes. Regardless of its effectiveness, deterrence is not difficult to produce as long as the criminal justice system exists to respond to crimes with punishment.

Punishment, unlike deterrence and justice, is not produced by a guilty verdict and is not produced by the mere existence of the institution of prison. On the contrary, producing punishment takes time. The more punishment a prisoner is sentenced to receive, the more time he or she must spend in prison and thus the more money the state must invest to accommodate his or her prison stay. Indeed, the 5-to-1- spending investment that Canada puts towards prisons as opposed to courts shows that punishment is the justice system’s most expensive product of all. However, punishment is also the justice system’s most natural product. As long as a prisoner sits in prison, he or she cannot fail to be punished. Although expensive, punishment is fairly easy to produce.

Like punishment, rehabilitation is also something the justice system produces over time. In theory, the time a criminal spends in prisons gives him or her time to reflect on his or her wrongdoing and change his or her ways. Rehabilitation, like punishment, also takes time and costs money. However, unlike punishment, rehabilitation does not arise naturally from incarceration. On the contrary, many individuals processed through the justice system fail to be rehabilitated. Instead, many former criminals eventually end up back in prison, a phenomenon known as recidivism. Recidivism is defined well enough by Wikipedia as “the act of a person repeating an undesirable behavior after they have either experienced negative consequences of that behavior, or have been trained to extinguish that behavior”. It is common knowledge that some people released from prison eventually commit another crime and end up back in prison.

The fact that some former prisoners will commit more crimes shows that no prison has a perfect track record of rehabilitating prisoners. Indeed, no country on the planet has ever achieved a 0% recidivism rate. That is, no country has rehabilitated every prisoner that have entered and exited its prison system. Rehabilitation, in this sense, is different from punishment. While a prisoner cannot fail to be punished in prison, many prisoners fail to be rehabilitated in prison.

Rehabilitation and Recidivism in the United States and Norway

The United States clearly demonstrates how to fail to rehabilitate criminals due to the fact that it has the highest rate of incarceration in the world as well as one of the highest recidivism rates in the world. The United States houses 655 prisoners per 100,000 of population and, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 60% of released prisoners end up back in prison within two years.

By contrast, Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world. Only 20% of prisoners in Norway released in 2005 had returned to prison within 2 years. The success of the Norwegian criminal justice system is well-known and its fans and critics tend to agree that the reasons for its success derive from the way it incarcerates criminals. Without delving into the details of prison conditions in Norway and the United States, it suffices to distinguish the amount Norway spends on its prisoners in comparison to the amount spent in the United States. For example, in 2018, while the American state of Michigan spent $38,051 per prisoner, Norway spent $129,222 per prisoner.

The correlation between Norway’s investments in incarceration and its success in rehabilitating criminals makes economic sense. As in any other industry, investment in a product tends to yield good quality products. By investing in rehabilitation, Norway produces rehabilitated prisoners more effectively than the United States. In other words, by spending more money on rehabilitating criminals, Norway is better at producing law-abiding citizens. The upside of this investment is that Norway enjoys a reduced amount of crime in its society. The downside is, of course, that reducing crime isn’t cheap.

Yet, the investment Norway makes in rehabilitating prisoners has a payoff beyond the fact that people in Norway are less likely to become victims of crime. As prisoners who leave a Norwegian prison are less likely to return to prison, the state’s costs of accommodating a prisoner are more likely to be complete when he or she is released. In other words, Norway’s low recidivism rate means that the state invests more money upfront and less money in the long-term.

In the United states, by contrast, a high recidivism rate means that although the state pays less for accommodating each prisoner, it accommodates prisoners for a longer period of time. Thus, the United States’ decision to spend less money on rehabilitation is not necessarily a cost-saving measure in practice. Although the American state saves money “on the front end”, their expenses tend to carry on for long stretches of time as criminals enter and re-enter the prison system.

Lessons for Canada’s Criminal Justice System

Determining Canada’s exact recidivism rates is not possible and is, at best, a matter of piecing together data from different jurisdictions. A collaborative study by the University of Oxford and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that Ontario’s 2014-2015 rate of recidivism in its prisons was 35% while Québec’s 2007-2008 rate of recidivism was 55%. In contrast, found that rates of recidivism for federal prisons has dropped substantially from 32.1% in 2007-2008 to 23.4% in 2011-2012. While Canada’s recidivism rates in federal prisons are nearly Nordic, its rates in some provincial prisons are potentially even worse than the overall statistics out of the United States. Overall, Canada has a mixed and ambiguous record on prisoner recidivism.

As such, considering investments in prisoner rehabilitation is worthwhile for not only those Canadians who wish to live in a safer society but also those who want to prevent runaway government expenses. At a time when criminal justice reform is in the news across the globe, Canadians should reflect on what our criminal justice system is producing and how the products of imprisonment affect not only public safety but also the public purse. Although it seems common sense that prison is for punishment, it is worth asking ourselves whether we do not also want prisons to produce rehabilitated prisoners that, instead of ending up back in prison within a few years, succeed in reintegrating back into society and contributing to the Canadian economy. Looking to successful and unsuccessful examples of prisoner rehabilitation in other countries allows Canadians to reflect on how we can best invest public resources in prisons to produce the best possible results for both public safety and public spending.


  • Facebook Basic Black
  • Twitter Basic Black
bottom of page