Probably the single most frequently heard phrase in the debate about crime and punishment these days is "incarceration nation." The phrase is used to undergird the idea that the United States over-incarcerates its population. This tendency, it is said, is expensive, inhumane, inconsistent with our tradition of liberty, and out of touch with the rest of the Western world, which has much lower rates of imprisonment.
Usually left unmentioned, or barely mentioned, in the de-incarceration campaign is the fact that prison works. As has frequently been documented on this blog, crime rates are now half or less of what they were a generation ago, when the incarceration rate started a steep climb. We now have the lowest incidence of crime since the 50's and early 60's.
There is an ongoing dispute about how much of the spectacular drop in crime is due to imprisonment. The eminent criminologist, the late James Q. Wilson, thought it's a quarter or more
. But even if that's an overestimate (and there are no neutral data indicating it is), it is still the case that, by any measure, we have had tens of thousands if not millions fewer crimes over the last few years -- and thus tens of thousands or millions fewer crime victims -- because we have imprisoned the people who would otherwise have been out victimizing them. The crime tables here
show that we have almost four million fewer serious crimes per year
now than we had 20 years ago.
If Wilson is right, increased imprisonment is the cause of almost a million fewer serious crimes each year. Even if he's only half right, it produced a half million fewer serious crimes annually. Over five years, that's two and a half million fewer serious crimes. This cannot be called anything other than an astonishing success.
So why do so many people, including not a few intelligent people, want to leave it in the dust?