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Lock 'Em Up - Forbes

The New York Times can't quite grasp the concept, but there's a stunningly simple explanation for the huge drop in crime rates: The villains are behind bars.

Dan Seligman  -  05.23.05

A big story, inadequately memorialized by the media, is that crime in America has become a much smaller story. Crime rates have declined by a third since the early 1990s. Violent crimes--defined by the U.S. Justice Department as homicide, rape, robbery and assault--are down by some 60% since 1993.

Counterintuitive as it might seem, this happy result came about via a massive government social program. The program did not promote job training or administer therapy to thugs. Instead it consisted of putting them behind bars. Today's jail and prison population of 2.1 million is 53% above the 1993 number and roughly triple the 1984 number.

The connection of incarceration to crime rates is hard to ignore. The number of Americans in prison during 1984-2003 correlates -0.71 with the number of violent crimes in the country. That powerful negative coefficient says that increases in the prison population go hand in hand with declines in crimes committed.

Heavier rates of imprisonment are not, of course, the only reason for crime's decline. If you square that -0.71, you get 0.5, a figure--the so-called coefficient of determination--that measures the extent to which imprisonment explains the lower crime rates. In other words, it accounts for half the decline in violent crime. What might explain the other half? Among the many other entries that get talked about are more police, more sophisticated policing techniques, less crack cocaine on the streets and abortion. That last entry, an intriguing but controversial late starter put forward by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt (in a new book called Freakonomics), reflects the thought that the millions of children unborn in the wake of Roe v. Wade were disproportionately at risk for delinquency and crime. Levitt believes that abortion is almost as important as imprisonment in explaining the decline in crime.

Why do we have prisons? The principal rationales advanced over the years are three: to deter crime, to reform criminals and to keep them off the streets. As evidenced by dismaying rates of recidivism, the first two rationales look very wobbly these days. In 2002 the Justice Department's statistical bureau published an elaborate study of 272,000 prisoners released in 1994 and found that within three years two-thirds of them had been rearrested for serious offenses. The bureau has no estimates of the perps who returned to crime but weren't caught.

But the third rationale looks to be rock solid. The so-called incapacitation effect--keeping those characters off the streets--undeniably prevents crime. Here again the 272,000 sample is illuminating. The criminals' average sentence was five years, and their average time served 20 months. In effect, then, the three-year survey period is roughly equivalent to the additional time they would have done, barring parole. But during those three years, and as a result of parole, the group triggered nearly 740,000 arrests (on top of the 4.1 million they had chalked up earlier in their careers).

And, of course, the number of arrests is far lower than the number of crimes. The ratio between the two figures is uncertain, and varies by type of crime, but analysts who have tried to quantify the effects of getting an individual villain off the street have generally come away with estimates ranging from 12 to 21 crimes per year. Applying a figure of, say, 15 per year to the roughly 1.4 million increase in the prison population since 1984, you get 21 million crimes prevented each year.

It must be acknowledged that many observers, notably including the New York Times, are withholding their applause for the higher imprisonment rates. The alternative perspective begins by reminding us that correlation is not causation and holds that the root cause of crime-rate fluctuations remains mysterious. Prisoner advocacy groups, e.g., the Sentencing Project, argue that draconian anti-drug laws have led to the mindless incarceration of nonviolent offenders. This is also the view of the Times. Obviously oblivious to the logic of the incapacitation effect, the adjacent headlines implicitly argue that we should be releasing prisoners because crime rates are declining. This view was elaborated in an Aug. 1, 2003 editorial bemoaning the fact that our incarceration rates are five to ten times those of other industrialized countries. Last summer the paper's magazine section ran an article denouncing prison as "barbarous" and applauding the new deal for criminals in Finland, where the inmates are treated as "clients," live in dormitory-style rooms, get lots of home leave and call guards by their first names. The brain totters at the image of Finnish guards trying to make nice on New York City's Riker's Island.

The only part of this argument that makes sense is the assertion that our "three strikes and you're out" laws and drug laws are putting away a certain number of relatively harmless folks. But the magnitude of this problem has been wildly overstated. The "nonviolent" prison population is indeed sizable, but it isn't harmless. Last year the Justice Department's statistical bureau turned in a group portrait of inmates who were about to be released after serving time for nonviolent offenses. The data tell us that 95% had an arrest history before the arrest that led to their current imprisonment. On average they had 9.3 prior arrests and about a third of these had been for violent crimes. The fact is that a sizable proportion of criminals sentenced for nonviolent offenses like buying dope is, in fact, chronically violent.

Several weeks ago Charles Murray wrote an article for the London Times on the United Kingdom's growing criminal underclass. The U.K. is, it happens, one of the European countries with incarceration rates far lower than America's. England and Wales combined have a prison population of around 75,000 and a crime problem widely identified as out of control. Citing the American experience, Murray suggested that the British could substantially reduce crime if they were willing to go to an inmate level of around 250,000. Maybe, if enough Brits get mugged in coming years, they would be willing.