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Crime and Prison

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Crime & Prison Graph

Last week the Pew Center on the States produced a report highlighting the statistic that the prison and jail population has topped 1% of the total population. The press release is here and the full report is here. In reaction, Investors Business Daily had this editorial noting that prison increases coincided with a dramatic drop in crime. Paul Cassell had this post at the Volokh Conspiracy with a similar graph making largely the same point.

The graph above shows the rate of violent crime (FBI violent index crimes per 100,000 population, in red on the left scale) and the number of prisoners in each year divided by the number of violent crimes in the same year (in blue on the right scale).

Our position has always been that the prison population relative to the crime rate is a more meaningful number than the ratio to the general population. The former is the ratio that tells us how severe or how lax our sentencing policies are. The overall incarceration rate that Pew and others cite is actually the product of two factors representing two different decisions: (1) the crime rate, caused by the decisions of individuals to commit crimes, and (2) the rate at which society incarcerates criminals, which in turn is the product of its ability to apprehend and convict them and its decision on punishment of those it does convict. The factors must be separated to evaluate the effect of these different decisions by different actors.

The blue line shows that the United States did indeed go "soft" in sentencing in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960, we had 74 people locked up for every 100 violent crimes committed in that year. By 1974, that ratio had dropped to less than a third of its previous value, only 22. In the same period, violent crime skyrocketed from 161 per 100k population to 461. Sentencing then got tougher -- gradually at first and then sharply in the 1990s. Violent crime fell, but not all the way back to its early levels.

As we have noted many times, (1) correlation does not prove causation, and (2) many factors go into determining crime rates. The extent to which soft sentencing caused the crime increase and tough sentencing caused the crime drop remains debatable. However, among serious scholars, even those opposed to tough sentencing have to grudgingly admit that sentencing is a substantial factor. A book titled The Crime Drop in America was published in 2000, edited by Alfred Blumstein and Joel Wallman. Chapter 6 is The Limited Importance of Prison Expansion, by William Spelman. Despite the dismissive title, Spelman concedes in the end, "The crime drop would have been 27 percent smaller than it actually was, had the prison buildup never taken place."

Other estimates run higher, of course. But let's take the opponents' estimate as a floor. They certainly would not have fudged it upward, so we can safely proceed on the assumption that 27% or more of the crime drop was caused by tougher sentencing. In the social sciences, a variable that explains 27% of the outcome is considered a large effect size.

More importantly, think of what this means in human terms. If violent crime rates in the years 1995-2004 were 27% lower than the average of the 1980s because we got tough, that means nearly half a million people were not robbed, almost 19,000 were not raped, and another nearly 19,000 were not murdered as a result of those policies. Remember, these stunning numbers are calculated using the other side's estimate. If more of the crime drop is attributable to tough sentencing, the real numbers are even higher.

It is indeed regrettable that the downward spiral of our culture and the decline of personal responsibility have reached a point that 1 in 100 persons have chosen to commit crimes for which they are incarcerated. We certainly can and should reexamine individual laws to see where changes should be made. For example, the law counting 5 grams of crack cocaine the same as 500 grams of powder for sentencing purposes -- proposed and supported by liberal Democrats when it was enacted -- is certainly overripe for such reexamination. But we need to be very careful.

The soft sentencing policies of the 1960s were a disaster. Many innocent people paid dearly, in many cases mortally, for the policymakers' delusion that they knew how to "fix" criminals and we didn't need "harsh" sentences any more. We must not repeat that mistake.

8 Comments

Kent, you have spent much of your adult life looking at this, and I am a dilettante, but I will offer my 2 cents. A very large proportion of criminals who commit serious crimes do not do so on a "one-off" basis. A burglar doesn't usually burgle just once; a mugger doesn't usually do so just once--etc. etc. Instead, people are criminals for a living, so to speak . . . . it's what they do. So when you catch a mugger, a burglar and give him serious time, you wind up preventing lots and lots of crimes. Plus, you also prevent the graduation, e.g., burglary to forcible rape, or at least delay it.

Why is it a surprise at all that the sentencing numbers back this up? And why do liberal criminologists try to obfuscate this basic reality.

Maybe we should try to separate out the "one-off" type of criminal, but even assuming that such a criminal has a moral claim to mercy, there is no way in hell that mercy is justified for the average burglar, robber, mugger, rapist etc.

Yes, that's pretty much what James Q. Wilson wrote back in the 1975, and Thinking About Crime provided the intellectual basis for a substantial increase in sentences.

Of course, which criminals standing for sentencing have actually committed multiple crimes is unknown. We only know how many they have been caught committing. Even so, recidivism is properly a major consideration in sentencing.

I think that some of the underpinning of the rejection of the risk to society of your average mugger, robber etc. (which is in large part due to their likelihood of committing a large number of future crimes) in determining sentencing policy is a metastization of the "innocent until proven guilty" principle. When a sentencing response of the society to a certain crime is determined, society has the right to consider the costs/benefits of incarceration of that class of criminals. And one big part of the benefits analysis is incapacitation, and that necessarily implies that part of the punishment is determined by an assessment of what they may do.

There has to be some intellectual and moral basis to reject the incapacitation rationale. Otherwise, it's just naked favoritism for criminals over innocent members of society.

Glad you posted this. My dad and I were watching a TV news report about the statistic that 1% of our population is in jail. The same news report also mentions in passing the drop in the crime rate, as if this was a totally unconnected statistic! My dad and I looked at each other and said, "More prisoners? Less crime? Well, duh!"

Locking people up for a long time for violent crimes is the right thing to do. But what about nonviolent consensual crimes? I am referring here to "crimes" such as running a sportsbook, an adult having a 15-year-old girlfriend, dealing pot, possessing cocaine, letting your 14-year-old friend look at your copy of Playboy, or even helping a terminally ill person end their life.

Just to drive the point home: while I take issue with many of his political views, I don't think society would have been at all well served if Barack Obama had spent time in prison for his past drug offenses. Even if, as many users do, he casually sold some on the side to a friend -- so what?

As long as the increase in the prison population is driven by longer sentences for people convicted of crimes such as robbery, burglary, battery, rape [but be careful about date rape -- it's bad, but it's not like stranger rape], homicide, and the like, I support it to the hilt. But I have a real problem when these lesser crimes are similarly punished. It's far from clear to me that they should be punished at all.

As a former criminal who spent 20 years as a thief and robber, with 12 of those years in maximum security federal and state prisons, (after reforming my life and now working to help other criminals reform theirs) I can tell you that incapacitation works to reduce crime, though prison worsens criminal behavior, and that the few crimes most criminals are actually sentenced for only represent a small percentage of the hundreds they have gotten away with.

"Nonviolent" and "consensual" are two very different things. The person who climbs in your bedroom window at night is classified as "nonviolent" if no one is home and no violent act occurs, even though he was ready and willing to kill you if the need arose.

I agree that some acts are criminal that shouldn't be, but the notion that this is the primary cause of prison overcrowding is a myth. That subject will be addressed in a future post.

A very interesting post Kent. Indeed, if we could get an effect size of 27% out of our rehabilitation programs, they'd be much to celebrate.

I certainly wonder (as others have) whether the increased incarceration rate captures too many nonviolent offenders. But another way to look at it might be that by capturing more nonviolent offenders, there is some sort of synergistic effect related to violent crimes. After all, many violent felons don't start off with violent crimes but get there down the road.

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