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Which Shell is the Pea Under? Government Crime Statistics Invoke Slight of Hand

The U.S. Justice Department claims a "definite and positive" link between locking people up and violent crime rates in the United States. As more offenders go to prison, the argument goes, violent crime decreases.

It seems there was a 17% decrease in the nation's imprisonment rate during the 1960s, but in the 1970 and 1980s the imprisonment rate increased by 39% and 99%, respectively. Conversely, the Justice Department argues, there was a .100% increase in violent crime in the 1960s, but decreases in the growth rate during the next two decades - down 47% in the 1970s and down 11 %n in the '80s. Thus, it is contended, the large increase in prison populations during the '70s and'80s worked to lower the rate of increase in violent crime. The conclusion, of course, being the need to continue prison expansion.

Bolstered by such sound logic, the current administration has made the building of more prisons a key part of its anti-crime program. The Department of justice's 1992 budget allocates $2,159,640,000 to the federal prison system, and 24.4% increase over 1991. The federal prison population was about 25,000 in 1981, is about 60,000 today, and by 1995 will be dose to 100,000.

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