We have had a very significant, generation-long decrease in the crime rate. It is now more than 40% lower than it was at its peak 20 or 25 years ago.
The release-them-now crowd will do anything to avoid telling you the truth. Recently, I saw, among the comments on SL&P, that crime is falling because prospective criminals spend their time browsing the Internet (and I suppose they do -- everyone else does).
Of course, as Kent and I have pointed out, crime has fallen for several reasons. The most important, the one that dares not speak its name (at least not in defense bar circles), isn't that hard to figure out: We have more of the people who commit crime in prison. They aren't out and about to do their thing, so less of their thing is getting done.
As the eminent James Q. Wilson put it recently in the Wall Street Journal:
[W]e have little reason to ascribe the recent crime decline to jobs, the labor market or consumer sentiment. The question remains: Why is the crime rate falling?
One obvious answer is that many more people are in prison than in the past. Experts differ on the size of the effect, but I think that William Spelman and Steven Levitt have it about right in believing that greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter or more of the crime decline. Yes, many thoughtful observers think that we put too many offenders in prison for too long. For some criminals, such as low-level drug dealers and former inmates returned to prison for parole violations, that may be so. But it's true nevertheless that when prisoners are kept off the street, they can attack only one another, not you or your family.
Imprisonment's crime-reduction effect helps to explain why the burglary, car-theft and robbery rates are lower in the U.S. than in England. The difference results not from the willingness to send convicted offenders to prison, which is about the same in both countries, but in how long America keeps them behind bars. For the same offense, you will spend more time in prison here than in England. Still, prison can't be the sole reason for the recent crime drop in this country: Canada has seen roughly the same decline in crime, but its imprisonment rate has been relatively flat for at least two decades.
Some of the other reasons Prof. Wilson mentions are also noteworthy. They are, in order: Better private security measures; more intense policing, particularly in high-crime areas (I can't wait for the ACLU to file a discrimination suit, if it hasn't already); improved public health (particularly a reduction in the use of lead-based paint and gasoline); the war on crack and its associated sharp decrease in crime among minorities ("...younger African-Americans had known many people who used crack and other hard drugs and wound up in prisons, hospitals and morgues"); and possibly an increase in the availability of abortion (although Prof. Wilson notes this reason has been hotly and credibly contested by knowledgeable researchers).
Finally, Prof. Wilson hypothesizes that there is something broader afoot, namely, a cultural change. "At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling--even through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression--because of a big improvement in the culture."
There are at least three important points to take away from Prof. Wilson's observations.
First, incarceration works. This is the first thing to remember when we are lectured about "getting smart on crime." We already know what's "smart on crime." Jail.
Second, to the extent the reduction in crack useage has been a factor in bringing down the crime rate, one might think that continuing to be resolute in taking crack dealers off the street is the thing to do. But no! Again, the very people exhorting us to be "smart on crime" are the ones who most loudly supported making life easier for crack dealers by lowering crack sentences. That, however, was not enough. Now the big push is to make life easier still by retroactively lowering those sentences, even though Congress declined to do so when it adopted the new sentencing regime.
Third, when we see that effective police work lowers crime, we might think that addtional police will lower it more. But among the chorus of voices among the "smart on crime" crowd, I seldom or never hear even one calling for more police, while I often hear from those who view the police with something between skepticism and hate.
It is, in sum, astounding to be lectured that what's "smart on crime" is a return to what the 1960's and 1970's proved -- at a great and irredeemable cost to our citizens -- was unerringly stupid.