This article in the Times has provoked a lot of discussion on and off the ‘net. As a student of criminology, it really isn’t saying anything that we haven’t known for a long time: the United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, by a very wide margin. So good for the Times for putting this fact out there.
But shame on the Times for not rebuking this misconception, as put by this law professor:
But Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah and a former federal judge, said the Pew report considered only half of the cost-benefit equation and overlooked the “very tangible benefits: lower crime rates.”
In the past 20 years, according the Federal Bureau of Investigation, rates of violent crimes fell by 25 percent, to 464 per 100,000 people in 2007 from 612.5 in 1987.
“While we certainly want to be smart about who we put into prisons,” Professor Cassell said, “it would be a mistake to think that we can release any significant number of prisoners without increasing crime rates. One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense.”
There are several issues with this. While it may seem like it makes sense that releasing “criminals” will lead to higher crime rates, it actually doesn’t work quite so simply. As more crimes are committed, more people are going to be locked up. But if more people keep getting locked up, doesn’t that mean that crime is still increasing? How do we know that by locking up more folks, less crime is being committed if we keep locking up more folks? It’s incredibly circular. There are other issues: One, there is some evidence that the more people from a particular community are locked up, the higher the crime rates in the community, due to the destabilizing effects of the loss. Two, prison is a place where people learn to be better criminals, not law abiding citizens. Locking people up often makes them worse than if you would have treated them instead. Have you seen the various documentaries on prisons in America? The gangs, drugs and violence do not stop at the prison walls. Third, Professor Cassel seemingly looks at the 20-year difference in crime rates to support his hypothesis that incarceration decreases crime. However, if you dice that 20-year period into smaller chunks, the relationship is much more complex:
This escalating growth over a 30-year period has been accompanied by sharply divergent trends in crime rates. We can see this clearly in looking at the 14-year time frame of 1984-1998. During this period, incarceration rates rose consistently, by 65% in the first seven-year period of 1984-91, and then by 47% from 1991-98. Yet crime rates fluctuated in this period, first increasing by 17% from 1984-91, then declining by 22% from 1991-98. (See Fig. 2). There were also divergent trends in crime rates among the states during the crime decline period of 1991-1998. A number of states with large increases in incarceration experienced smaller drops in crime than did states that increased their use of imprisonment at a lower rate. For example, Texas, with a 144% increase in incarceration and California, with a 52% increase, experienced considerable declines in crime (35% and 36% respectively), but New York experienced a 43% decline in crime despite an increase in incarceration of only 24%. An overview of changes in incarceration and crime in all 50 states reveals no consistent relationship between the rate at which incarceration increased and the rate at which crime decreased. – The Sentencing Project
Furthermore, some crimes are not counted in the FBI’s determination of the crime rate, as they generally only look at crimes with specific victims, which does not include such crimes as gun possession, drugs and immigration. Indeed, a 2001 Times article stated:
… it has become increasingly clear from statistical research that ”there is no reason that the prison count and the crime rate have to be consistent.” The crime rate measures the amount of crime people are suffering from, he said, while the prison count is a measure of how severely society chooses to deal with crime, which varies from time to time.
So let’s be careful when assuming there is only two sides to this coin, that of incarceration rates and crime rates. It’s more like six sides to a die.