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The Astonishing, Amazing, Incredible Correlation Between Incarceration and Crime

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One of the strongest arguments for continuing to hang tough on imprisonment, and refusing to become unnerved by the racially-charged hectoring of the "Incarceration Nation" crowd, is easy to summarize:  Prison works.  When we have more prison, we have less crime. When we have less prison, we have more crime. It's not a whole lot more complex than that.

This was confirmed once again by statistics posted today on Sentencing Law and Policy, run by my friendly (if defense-leaning) adversary, Doug Berman.  Prof. Berman notes that newly released BJS statistics show that we had a modest decline in crime in 2013.  This is the first time in the last three years that crime went down; it went up in 2011 and 2012.

OK, quick now, what else happened in 2013?  Right you are:  For the first time in the last three years, going back to 2010, the prison population went up.

What an amazing coincidence!!!  But just how amazing is a story that needs to be told, lest we fall for the "smart" sentencing line.

Here it is in a nutshell:


As incarceration increased dramatically for 20 straight years, 1989 to 2009 (figures here courtesy of none other than the Sentencing Project), crime decreased by roughly 50% (figures here).  In 2010, the prison population dropped for the first time in more than a generation.  The very next year  --  it didn't take the thugs long to get back in business  --  crime increased for the first time in more than 20 years, and it increased again in 2012 as the prison population continued to drop.  Last year, however, incarceration rose and  --  lo and behold  --  the BJS figures Doug posted show that crime did the same thing it did for the all the other years in the last generation in which we increased imprisonment, i.e., it went down.

 

At this stage, our pro-defense friends are beyond the point of silliness in insisting on the general bromide that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. That's typically true, sure.  But this is not the typical case.  We're talking about more than 50 years of evidence. When incarceration remains  stable or increases only marginally for two decades in the Sixties and Seventies as crime skyrockets; then increases dramatically in the Nineties and the Two Thousands as crime plummets; then falls slightly for two or three years as crime rises slightly; then rises in 2013 as once again crime falls  --  when the correlation is that precise and that big for that long, you have your answer:  Incarcerating felons produces more safety, releasing them produces less, and the question is not close.


Why are our opponents afraid of too much safety?

4 Comments

If it were only that simple, Bill, and if it was you could also use the crime data to prove we should keep reducing the FEDERAL prison population. After all, the federal prison population also went UP in 2011 and 2012 (when crime went up), while the federal prison population went down in 2013 (when crime also went down).

So, Bill, by your logic based on data from the last 3 years, to continue to increase public safety we need in 2014 to keep REDUCING the Federal prison population. It must be that you are afraid of too much safety since you seem to keep opposing efforts to reduce federal sentences.

Of course, you and I both know it is not that simple. Also, the lead studies suggest that, to the extent we want a simple answer, it comes from lead exposure, not incarceration rates.

Doug --

"If it were only that simple, Bill, and if it was you could also use the crime data to prove we should keep reducing the FEDERAL prison population. After all, the federal prison population also went UP in 2011 and 2012 (when crime went up), while the federal prison population went down in 2013 (when crime also went down)."

Well, gads, it's almost certainly the case that the 2013 prison population when down in two or three or eight or nine states, even while rising over the nation as a whole.

Would that prove we should keep reducing the prison population in those two or three or eight or nine states? If so, would it similarly prove that we should keep INCREASING the prison population in the other 48 or 47, or 42 or 41 states?

I don't think so, and I doubt you think so, either. The only thing it would do is prove that a person can cherrypick statistics over 51 different jurisdictions.

But (1) we already knew that, and (2) cherrypicking is still just cherrypicking.

The fact remains that the evidence shows that, for more than 50 years, when we increase incarceration we reduce crime, and when we decrease incarceration we increase crime. I didn't produce these numbers; Eric Holder's DOJ did.

It may well be that lead poisoning also contributes to fluctuations in crime. I'll assume arguendo that it does. No one, however, thinks it's the sole determinate of crime, just as no one (certainly including me) thinks that imprisonment is the sole determinate. But, as the numbers make unarguable, imprisonment is a SIGNIFICANT determinate. And that's the main thing we need to know in order to reject the idea that we should turn away from something we have learned succeeds to re-embrace something we have learned fails.

In addition, even though we'll assume that, to some important extent, lead produces criminal behavior, that does not answer the question of what society should do with the people who then commit it. You can't "un-lead" their brains. But you can incapacitate the rest of them by using incarceration.

We can't get to perfect, but we can get to better, and that's what increased incarceration has helped us do since at least the early 1990's.

All fair points, Bill, but saying we are now doing "better" depends a lot on your values of what is better. You clearly prioritize security over liberty to a great extent in this setting. That is fine, but I think we can and should try to do better on both liberty and security through a targeted and data-driven reduction in expenditures on expensive and seemingly excessive criminal laws --- as we did with the repeal of Prohibition --- particularly with respect to nonviolent drug crimes. The evidence in various settings suggests, circa 2010 and after in the US, that this can be even "better" in light of the Framers values than your enduring embrace for modern mass incarceration and a huge federal drug war as the only sensible means to try to keep us all safe.

Doug --

"All fair points, Bill, but saying we are now doing 'better' depends a lot on your values of what is better. You clearly prioritize security over liberty to a great extent in this setting. That is fine, but I think we can and should try to do better on both liberty and security..."

Actually, it depends largely just on numbers. The 317,000,000 are doing better, and the 2,250,000 are doing worse. I'll take those figures any ole' time. To paraphrase Jeremy Bentham, the greater good for the much, much, much greater number.

To the extent it does depend on values, let me make mine explicit. I value the security (and safety and ability to have peace-of-mind) of potential crime victims over the liberty of their victimizers. I do this most especially because (in addition to the obvious moral imbalance), the victimizers can easily, and on their own, stay out of jail. All they need to do is lead a normal, honest, drug-free, temper-controlling life. When, by contrast, they decide that making a quick buck or fleecing or bullying someone is more important than those things, then it's less that we take their freedom than that they forfeit it.

They can change outcomes by making better decisions. As long as this is the case, the prison population in this country will be principally their problem to solve, not yours or mine.

The government does not need to spend a single additional dollar or get any bigger. Individual human beings need to be more conscientious, and take more seriously the rights and feelings of others.

I don't want any expanded government program. I want a (cost-free and far more effective) CONSCIENCE program. And until criminals get with the program, it will be not just utilitarianism but accountability that counsels continued high levels of imprisonment.

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