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Crime and Punishment Relation Examined

Between 1991 and 1998 the rate of incarceration in the United States increased a dramatic 47% at same time the crime rate dropped 22%. Before you conclude that imprisoning more people results in less crime you would be wise to read a report issued in September, 2000, by The Sentencing Project and written by Jenni Gainsborough and Marc Mauer, Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s.

On a state level, the rise in the incarceration rate does not correlate with a corresponding drop in crime rates. While Texas had the greatest increase in imprisonment in the period: a whopping 144% and a large drop in crime rate (35%), West Virginia, with an increase in incarceration rate of 131% had a drop of only 4% in its crime rate and New York had an increase of only 24% in its incarceration rate but a drop of 43% in its crime rate. Maine, with the lowest increase in its rate of incarceration (2%) showed a 19% drop in its crime rate. When states were grouped according to whether they fell above or below the national average increase in incarceration rate (47%) the disparities become even more apparent: the twenty states and the District of Colombia which had above average rates of incarceration an average of 72% showed a decrease in the crime rate of 13%; the 30 states with below average increases in incarceration rate showed an average 30% increase in incarceration and a 17% decrease in crime rate. Three states with greater than average increases in rate of incarceration showed increases in the crime rate during the period (Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska).

If the crime and incarceration rates are considered over a longer period of time (1984 1998) the incarceration rate has risen steadily (prison population tripling between 1980 and 1996) but the crime rate first rose and then declined. Between 1970 and 1998, the overall crime rate went up and down reaching high points in 1981 and `92 and low points in 1970 and 1998. Violent crime rates increased from 1970 until about 1990 when, like all other crime, they declined. The 1980's increase was fueled by the introduction of crack cocaine, which contributed to the rise in homicides. The rate of incarceration climbed steadily from around 100 per 100,000 population in 1970 to about 460 in 1998. According to Gainsborough and Mauer, "This does not suggest that imprisonment has no impact on crime, but clearly the relationship, if any, is ambiguous."

Having brought into question the relationship of the incarceration and crime rates, Gainsborough and Mauer first explore factors contributing to the increase in the prison population and then those contributing to the reduction in crime. They attribute less than 15% of the increase in prison population to changes in the crime rate, citing policy changes as responsible for over 85% of the increase. The increase in the number imprisoned for drug offenses and the longer sentences they receive account for 19% of the growth in state prison populations between 1990 and 1998. The effect of this increased incarceration for drug offenses on the crime rate cannot be measured since drug crimes, being classified as "victimless" crimes, are not included in the Uniform Crime Reports and hence not counted in calculating the crime rate.

The increased length of sentences, brought about by mandatory minimum sentences, "three strikes" laws and the reduction in the use of parole, is presently the greatest factor contributing to the increase in incarceration. The revocation of parole for violations also accounts for a growing number of admissions to prison: between 1990 and 1998 the percent of admissions for parole violations increased 54% while the percent of new court commitments increased 7.5%.

The primary factor contributing to the decrease in crime during the last decade has been the economic expansion. Those in prison, however, are the ones left out of the expansion: in 1991 53% of prisoners earned less than $10,000 in the year prior to their incarceration; 65% had not completed high school, nearly 50% worked only part time or were unemployed. Unemployment rates for low wage earners dropped beginning with the economic recovery that began in 1992 and kept pace with the declining crime rate from `92 to `98. "[One] study estimated that the decline in unemployment explained about 30% of the fall in the crime rate from 1992 to 1997."

"... [I]f the decline in crime is not largely attributable to mass incarceration, then [its] consequences become even more disturbing. Current policies have seen corrections expenditures increase to about $40 billion per year, which inevitably means less money available for other areas of spending. Any marked downturn in the economy and/or political drive toward large tax cuts will require hard choices among areas of public investment." The social consequences to those imprisoned and their families and communities are multitudinous: the difficulty of finding work for someone with a criminal record; the breakup of families because of divorce and the loss of parental rights; the loss of welfare benefits and educational loans; the loss of voting rights in many states.

Because increasing imprisonment has long since reached a point of diminishing returns the authors' final section discusses its public policy implications and present an approach that might mitigate the increasing rate of incarcerating without causing the crime rate to climb. Among the measures suggested are a moratorium on prison construction; an end to mandatory sentencing; an increase in the use of probation and parole, particularly for non violent offenders; a change in the focus of the war on drugs to prevention and treatment rather than punishment; a strengthening of juvenile courts, taking juveniles out of the adult justice system insofar as this is possible. The report, Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s," is available from The Sentencing Project, 514 Tenth NW, Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20004 for $5.00.

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