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Crime and punishment

One of every 32 adults in America is on probation, parole, or incarcerated.  As of last year, we had 2.2 million people in prison or jail, more than any other country in the world.  With 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners.  Our rate of incarceration is 737 per 100,000; in most European nations, the figure is between 55 and 120 per 100,000.  Japan's rate is 36. 

That has not come without cost.  State spending on prisons increased by 189% from 1980 to 2000.  That was six times the rate of increase in spending on education.  In some states it's much more; prison spending in Texas increased 401%, while spending on education increased only 37%.  From 1984 to 1994, California built 21 prisons, and only 1 state university; spending on prisons increased by 209% in that time, while spending on state universities increased by 15%.

So it's only natural to wonder:  how much of a bang are we getting for that buck?  The purpose of locking up people -- or convicting them of crimes and then putting them on probation -- is to reduce crime.  Is that happening?

Well, not so much, as a recent report from the Vera Institute for Justice shows.  There have been any number of studies in recent years on the effect of incarceration on crime rates; the report sifts through all the data, and concludes that, in all probability, a 10% increase in incarceration results in a 2% to 4% drop in crime.  What's more, that might be retrospective, not prospective:  while the studies show that increased rate of incarceration was responsible for about 25% of the drop in crime during the last couple of decades, it's quite probable that we've reached the point of diminishing returns, where locking up more people doesn't really do any good.

Or might even do harm.  In some cases, the report showed, an increase in incarceration can actually increase the crime rate as well:

Dina Rose and Todd Clear, for example, found that the level of crime in several Florida communities increased after the incarceration rate of individuals from those communities reached a certain level. Rose and Clear argue that high rates of imprisonment break down the social and family bonds that guide individuals away from crime, remove adults who would otherwise nurture children, deprive communities of income, reduce future income potential, and engender a deep resentment toward the legal system. As a result, as communities become less capable of maintaining social order through families or social groups, crime rates go up.

Many have claimed that the drug epidemic has wreaked havoc with inner-city black communities in the past two decades.  It may be that our response to that epidemic -- passing increasingly punitive drug laws to the point where one in three young black males is currently in the criminal justice system as an inmate, parolee, or on probation -- has only worsened that problem.  And the belief that such sentences targeted only those who trafficked in drugs is belied by the statistics:  between 1980 and 2005, the number of inmates incarcerated for drug possession offenses in state prisons and jails increased by 1,000%.

The discerning reader might have noticed that if 25% of the drop in crime resulted from increased incarceration, 75% resulted from other factors, and at this point it might behoove us to concentrate on those other factors.  The report does, noting that more police, increased employment, and higher high school graduation rates have all had pronounced effects on crime rates.  What's more, it seems that many people have come to the belated realization that most of those we incarcerate have to get out of prison sometime, and preparing them for a smoother transition back into society, through education and training while in prison and providing community re-entry programs, is a cost-effective way of reducing crime. 

And it may be that all this will happen.  The report notes that "while 75 percent of Americans believed that too little money was spent on halting rising crime rates in 1994, by 2002, this had declined to 56 percent," so perhaps we've gotten beyond the "lock' em up and throw away the key" mentality.

Or perhaps not.  Crime rates are rising again.  As Prof. Berman of the Law and Sentencing Policy blog noted, the Blakely and Booker decisions made the US Supreme Court "the most liberal, pro-defendant court in the country on sentencing procedure";  the result of that, though, has been to reverse the momentum in Congress toward eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, and to actually increase the likelihood that criminal statutes will be modified to reduce the discretion of judges to hand down lighter sentences.  Blakely and Booker also forced the Ohio Supreme Court to reconsider Ohio's sentencing statutes; the sole result of its decision in Foster was to make it easier for trial judges to impose harsher sentences.  The Ohio legislature over the past decade has substantially narrowed the number of crimes eligible for expungement, thereby increasing the number of people who will carry a criminal record around with them for the rest of their lives, harming their prospects of obtaining gainful employment.  And nobody has yet lost an election by being too hard on crime. 

There's the old story of the frog and the scorpion, where the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river, and the frog says, "But you'll sting me."  The scorpion assures him that won't happen, but halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog.  "Why'd you do that?" protests the frog as he starts to sink, "Now we'll both die." 

"Because I'm a scorpion.  That's what scorpions do."

Maybe locking up people is what we do.


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