As the nation’s prison population increased 10 percent, from 1.2 million prisoners in 1999 to 1.3 million in 2012, the New York and New Jersey prison populations dropped 26 percent, according to a report released by The Sentencing Project on July 23, 2014.
More importantly, the crime rates in both states decreased at a greater rate than the national average, during the same period. While national violent and property crime rates fell at 26 and 24 percent, respectively, New York’s violent and property crime rates dropped 31 and 29 percent, respectively. Similarly, New Jersey’s violent and property crime rates fell 30 and 31 percent, respectively.
California has seen comparable results. Nationally, the prison population decreased one percent between 2006 and 2012, while California’s prison population plunged 23 percent. Nationally, violent and property crime rates fell 19 and 15 percent, respectively, during that period as California’s violent and property crime rates dropped 21 and 13 percent, respectively. In fact, after a slight uptick in 2012, California’s 2013 violent crime rate fell to its lowest level since 1967, according to the California Justice Department.
“While it might seem intuitive that reducing prison populations would negatively impact public safety - or conversely, that declining crime rates would drive down levels of incarceration - such a relationship has generally been shown to be relatively weak,” researchers observed. “This is because just as forces beyond crime rates affect incarceration levels, forces beyond incarceration affect crime.”
The report noted that “during the near four-decade continuous rise in incarceration since 1972, crime rates increased in some periods and declined in others.”
The New York, New Jersey and California experiences are not anomalies, according to the report. Similar results have been seen in other countries, including Canada, Germany and Finland, researchers found. We have previously reported on the dramatic decrease in Sweden’s prison population. (PLN, Jan 2014, p. 9).
Today, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world, with a prison a jail population topping 2.2 million. That results in an incarceration rate of 716 per 100,000, up from 434 per 100,000 in 1999.
As of 2012, “14 states had rates of incarceration in excess of 450 per 100,000,” researchers found. For example, Texas reduced its prison population by 6,000 prisoners in 2012, but that reduction reduced “the state’s incarceration rate ... only to 601 per 100,000, a dramatic rate of imprisonment even by the standards of a nation of mass incarceration,” according to the report.
“At least in three states we now know that the prison population can be reduced by about 25% with little or no adverse effect on public safety,” researchers concluded. “There’s no reason to believe that we can’t see greater reductions in the coming years as well,” said Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report.
Even with a 25 percent reduction in the prison populations of every state and the federal government, America’s incarceration rate would still exceed “500 per 100,000 population - a level 3-6 times that of most industrialized nations.” See: “Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States,” (2014), The Sentencing Project, sentencingproject.org.
Source: The Wall Street Journal
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