Updated: Aug 11, 2022
The article connects the dots between how abortion laws impact crime and the ability to raise a child in a loving environment. Also discussed are the economic incentives supporting incarceration and the private prison industry. The paradoxical relationship is demonstrated between likely restrictive abortion states and the private prison industry.
This article is provided with the following sections:
Mother knows best
Crime policy choices
Private Prison incentives
1. Mother knows best
Peer-reviewed and time-validated research from the University of Chicago and Yale University (See Levitt and Donohue [i]) shows the relationship between abortion and crime. The data suggests a strong causal relationship - about 50% explanatory power, which is very strong in the social sciences. The summary finding is:
Cause: If the child-bearing decision is distanced from the expecting mother;
Effect: Then an increased likelihood of crime will occur.
The research demonstrates that a loving home environment is important to raising a child that does not turn to crime. The outcome of a loving childhood is to dramatically lower the future likelihood of committing crimes and entering the prison system.
The research suggests that the expecting mom is the best arbiter of whether or not the unborn child is likely to be raised in a loving environment. This choice, when allowed to be made by the expecting mother, acts as a crime prevention filter. The researchers show that the cohort of aborted births significantly reduced crime in the future when those children (mostly male) would have reached the “prime-crime” age. That is, the expecting mom is a highly effective future crime filter. By reducing an expecting woman’s birth choice, society is muting one of our greatest crime fighters.
2. Crime policy choices
Regarding crime, what is not clear is the best policy response. Crime policy should start with crime rate targets. In the U.S., crime has been significantly decreasing over decades. Is the current crime level the proper expectation? Would society find a somewhat higher crime rate acceptable? How much resource is available for crime prevention? Also, how proactive should we be? The expecting mother filter took decades to manifest itself. Any new crime policies may take years or decades to show effect.
This article does not take a position on “pro-life” or “pro-choice” oriented crime policies. It is important to recognize that there is no free lunch given the relationship between a loving home environment and crime. Assuming lower crime is better, enabling the expecting mom’s ability to filter appears to be a very efficient route to decreasing future criminal capacity. However, it is possible policies could be implemented that restrict abortion but support the expecting mom’s ability to provide a loving environment. Effectively, policies could be put in place that remove the need to filter because the loving environment is provided via policy. Please note that this article defines “policy” broadly as an intervention provided by an organization external to the individual. The organization definition is quite broad - policy interventions can be provided by family, church, community, city, state, country, or other. Successful crime policy implementation is generally based on the organizations’ expertise and available resources.
What seems clear is decreasing the expecting mom’s ability to filter and not providing alternative means to achieve a loving home environment will increase future crime. If abortion is restricted, programs to offset crime prevention filtering could be implemented. What is also clear from the study, offset filtering programs have not historically occurred at the level needed to replace the future mom’s filtering ability. Part of the problem is the latency between policy implementation and measuring the success of the policy. As in the case of abortion, it could take decades to understand its effect as a crime policy. Just because past filtering offset programs have not been a successful replacement, doesn’t mean they will not be in the future. It does suggest that future filtering offset programs will need to be intentional, well funded, and closely monitored as a full replacement for mom crime filtering.
3. Private Prison incentives
Admittedly, this subject often conjures religious and emotion-informed beliefs. This article's intent is to highlight the significant economic incentives at play. These incentives act as an "invisible hand on the scale” of crime and punishment-related public policy decisions. Economists are trained to follow the incentives. In a complex, multi-agent private prison system, individual incentives have a way of interacting that may drive unintended consequences.
In some states, prison privatization has become a big business. The U.S. state prison system regularly outsources prison management to private enterprises. These private companies earn significant revenue, provide jobs, pay taxes, and actively deploy state lobbying organizations. By its nature, prisons are intensely local enterprises. It is one of the few industries with limited offshore options. In effect, private prisons have built-in “place-specific” competitive advantages. State lawmakers are regularly lobbied by private prison advocates. [ii] As mentioned in a 2021 report by The Sentencing Project:
“Political influences have been instrumental in determining the growth of for-profit private prisons and continue today.”
The most important private prison system incentive and outcome is this: More criminals cause more private prison revenue and more state jobs. The incentive-based reasoning is that decreasing society’s “loving childhood” ability:
Increases the likelihood of a higher crime rate in the future, and
Increases the private prison company’s future raw material and path to revenue.
The next graphic shows the relationship between the 2019 State Gross Income [iii] (aka, a state's Gross Domestic Product or GSP) and the 2019 state prison population managed by private companies. [iv] Also, overlayed is the percentage of states forecast to implement some form of abortion restriction since the recision of the Roe v. Wade decision that formerly allowed some forms of abortion. [v] The prisoner to GSP index indicates the relative size of the prison industry within a state. [vi] The higher the state index, the higher the relative prison industry size. The higher the state index, the more the state has to lose regarding the economic impact of its prison industry. A state indexed to 1 is the average prison industry size in the United States. We consider the state GSP index as a proxy for the private prison industry incentive power within that state compared to others. A higher GSP index indicates a higher private prison incentive power within that state.
For example, Kentucky has an index of 1, thus, its prison industry is the average size as compared to the U.S. as a whole. Compare that to Montana, whose prison industry is just over 10x that of the average state. Compared to the U.S. average, Montana has 10x the gross income incentive impacted by the private prison industry.
We also overlay a state-level forecast to increase abortion restrictions in the advent of the Roe v. Wade supreme court legal recision. We compare the states that are over-indexed with private prisoners to those that are at or under-indexed with private prisoners. The states that have more economic influence from the private prison industry are twice as likely to increase abortion restrictions than those states that have less economic influence from the private prison industry. (76% compared to 38%, respectively)
Private prisoner volume by state, indexed to Total Gross State Income and overlayed with abortion restriction likelihood
(abortion likelihood from 2021)
The prior graphic demonstrates that the prison industry size and power are correlated to the state's likelihood to restrict abortion. This suggests an economic incentive (private prison profit) relates to policy behavior. (abortion restriction) The point of this article is to reveal that these two factors are correlated. In the case of incentives (private prison profit) and outcomes (higher crime), the combination of policy behavior (abortion restriction) and incentives (private prison profit) are more likely to drive the outcome. (higher crime) The earlier study by Levitt and Donohue showed that abortion acts as a filter to increase the likelihood a child is raised in a loving home and resulting in reduced crime. The overlay of private prison populations at the state level shows there is private prison industry incentive interaction. This economic incentive interaction encourages higher criminal behavior. This interaction may impact any time in life, including at or prior to birth.
It is important to separate the system’s participants from the system. To be clear, this article certainly does not suggest a relationship between the individual participants of the private prison system and their family perspectives. In fact, it is likely the private prison system participants, like most Americans, are pro-family. The point is, regardless of the participants, systems rules and incentives have a way of resolving themselves to maximize economic value.
This occurs much the way water finds its own level… even in the context of less family-friendly unintended consequences. If a system thrives with more criminals, well then, the system will relentlessly work to procure more criminals as system inputs. Long-term, systems-oriented unintended consequences occur in other contexts as well. For example, it has been shown by researchers like Porter, Gehl, and Hulett that U.S. individual voting power has been systemically diminished since the implementation of a 1972 voting rule change. [vii]
The prison system population is currently skewed toward the poor and minority populations. [viii] Thus, by legally removing the loving home filter, without backfilling significant social programs, lawmakers are increasing a social tax on the poor and minorities. It is the poor and minorities that disproportionately provide the raw material for the private prison’s revenue generation. [ix]
The total U.S. prison population indexed to the total U.S. population by race
A framework for revealing economic private prison incentives is provided. The framework suggests that the same states that stand to disproportionately benefit from prison jobs and tax revenue are likely to implement restrictive abortion laws. Paradoxically, restrictive abortion laws will lead to more private prison revenue and more crime unless offset with other crime filtering policies. This is likely to occur on the backs of those with the least options and the quietest social voices - the poor and minorities.
As such, given:
The powerful abortion-based crime filtering was recently rolled back via the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court recision; and,
The higher incentives of the private prison industry in the states most likely to implement abortion restrictions -
Then, it is likely crime will increase in those states unless alternative policy to support a loving family environment is implemented.
[i] Next, two references are provided. The first reference is to the initial paper, published in 2001. The second paper is an out-of-time validation of the original hypothesis.
Levitt, Donohue, The Impact Of Legalized Abortion On Crime, The Quarterly Journal Of Economics, 2001
Levitt, Donohue, The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime over the Last Two Decades, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2019
Please note: The first graphic in this article shows and interprets the crime trend line since Roe v Wade was first implemented. This is based on U.S. Government crime statistics and applies the Levitt and Donohue hypothesis. Their research uses an ingenious randomized control trial application method called "a natural experiment." In effect, they constructed valid control groups within data that "exists in the wild." In order to establish causality, their approach eliminated the need for a laboratory-constructed control group in a non-existent alternative universe where Roe v. Wade did not exist. Their articles are worth reading to appreciate their natural experiment approach.
We note at the beginning of the article that the Levitt and Donohue research was "peer-reviewed." Peer-review understates the level of scrutiny. In interviews since the 2001 article was published, Dr. Levitt indicated the work received intense criticism from other academics and attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. While not all the feedback was helpful, generally the avalanche of feedback helped improve the research and sharpen the validity of the hypothesis. It goes to show that when challenging long-held beliefs with grounding in emotion or religion, a researcher must have thick skin.
Dubner, Freakonomics interview with Stephen Levitt and John Donohue, Abortion and Crime, Revisited, Episode 384, 2019
[ii] O'Neil, Private Prisons Pour Millions Into Lobbying State Lawmakers, FollowTheMoney.org, 2018
[iii] Siebeneck, Wang, GDP by State, U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2020
[iv] Carson, Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020
[v] Nash, Cross, 26 States Are Certain or Likely to Ban Abortion Without Roe, Guttmacher Institute, 2021
[vi] The author merged the state-level GDP, Prisoner, and abortion forecast to develop the prisoner-to-state income index and abortion forecast overlay.
[vii] The following article demonstrates how the political system’s rules, especially as impacted by the 1972 McGovern - Frazier commissions recommendation to create the primary and caucus system, are responsible for the divisiveness found in today’s U.S. political system. The primary and caucus system rules change is a systems-level example of the law of unintended consequences.
Hulett, Your vote does not matter as much as it should!, The Curiosity Vine, 2021
Porter, Gehl, The Politics Industry, 2020
[viii] Carson, Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2020 - Table 3
Editors, QuickFacts, U.S. Census Bureau, 2021
The author merged the prisoner and total population census to develop the prisoner to total population race index.
[ix] Hayes, Barnhorst, Incarceration and Poverty in the United States, American Action Forum, 2020
Author's perspective: For full disclosure, the author describes himself as both "pro-choice" and "pro-life." Please see this link for a description: Faith, Science and Abortion