Crime Rates and Incarceration

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 28 2008 12:24 AM

Crime Rates and Incarceration

Adam Liptak's article in The New York Times described America's extraordinary incarceration rate, a rate clearly outstripping that of any industrialized country. But Liptak overstates the case when he talks about the relationship between incarceration and the crime rate. He notes that, there is "little question" that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime," while conceding that "there is debate about how much." He quotes former Judge Paul Cassell as saying that a "good case can be made that fewer Americans are now being victimized" because of tougher crime policies. The implication of this statement and others in the article is that while the incarceration rate may be too high, it is somehow a necessary cost of controlling crime.

While I don't pretend to be an expert in crime statistics, the relationship between crime rates and incarceration is not remotely clear and to many lead to a conclusion opposite to that of former Judge Cassell's. See The Sentencing Project, "Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship."  and " Lessons of the Get Tough movement in the United States. " Violent crime, which increased in the 60s, has experienced a sustained declined over the next three decades, a decline which does not necessarily correlate with onerous incarceration policies, but rather with a host of other factors -- the economy, the extent to which the crack epidemic simply ran its course, community policing, demographics. In any case, incarceration rates increased not because they were somehow essential to control crime but because criminal justice issued had become politicized, fodder for political campaigns and news stories. Murder stories , for example, increased even when the murder rate decline in the 1990s.

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Some have even improperly identified the federal sentencing guidelines as a cause of crime rate reduction. 54% of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses, according to The Sentencing Project, with only 11% for violent crime. Drug crime rates have increased regardless of the increase in imprisonment. In any event, even assuming increased incarceration contributes to the drop in crime, federal sentencing comprises only a fraction of the sentences meted out in courts around the country. And while some states have guidelines, many do not, and none have copied the federal system's mandatory approach.

Apart from the crime rate, we ought to be looking at what some have called the criminogenic effects of mass incarceration, particularly of African Americans, about which Liptak has written on other occasions. We should be considering whether the mass incarceration of African Americans, particularly for non violent offenses, has wreaked more havoc to those communities than their crimes have. Large numbers of people are reentering communities which have little or no ability to absorb them. While prisoners are not committing crime in their communities while they are incarcerated, they also are not functioning as parents, workers, consumers or neighbors. As Marc Mauer (of The Sentencing Project) reports, there are now about 1.5 million children in the U.S. who have a parent in prison: "The effect on these communities is compounded by the fact that imprisonment has become an almost inevitable aspect of the experience of growing up as a black male in the U.S." an attitude which contributes to repeating the cycle in the next generation.

In short, it is not remotely clear that the blunderbuss approach to crime -- imprisoning everyone for as long as possible -- works, much less in proportion to its considerable costs.