Category: crime rate

Western: we can cut crime and prisons at the same time


Crime and Punishment

Public Safety Doesn’t Require More Inmates

By Bruce Western

This article orginally appeared in the Boston Review.

By the end of the 1990s, policymakers and police were celebrating the great American crime decline. Rates of murder, robbery, and rape had fallen across cities and suburbs, among rich and poor.

Less appreciated perhaps is the continuing decline in crime in the 2000s. In every state fewer incidences of serious violence and property crime were reported to police in 2010 than in 2000. The murder rate is now the lowest it has been since the early 1960s.

Research on the 1990s traces the crime drop to better policing; to a subsiding crack trade, which, at its height in the late 1980s, unleashed a wave of murderous violence; and to increasing prison populations.

However, some researchers find the apparently large effect of imprisonment controversial. Driven by tough-on-crime policy and intensified drug enforcement, prison populations grew unchecked from the early 1970s until the last decade, but crime rates fluctuated without any clear trend. By the early 2000s incarceration rates had grown to extraordinary levels in poor communities. Whole generations of young, mostly minority and poorly educated men were being locked up, leading to the United States’s current status as the world’s largest jailer, in both absolute and relative terms.

Prisons may have reduced crime a little in the short run, but at the current scale the negative effects of incarceration are likely to outweigh the positive. Commonplace incarceration among poor young men fuels cynicism about the legal system, destabilizes families, and reduces economic opportunities.

Over the last few years, the rate of prison population growth in the states finally began to slow. (The growth in federal prisons has continued unabated.) As the political salience of crime declined and the cost of prisons ballooned, policymakers and the courts turned to alternatives to incarceration.

Twelve states reduced imprisonment in the last decade. These states diverted more drug offenders to probation and community programs, and parolees were less likely to return to the penitentiary.

All the states that reduced imprisonment also recorded reductions in crime. For instance, between 2000 and 2010, New York cut imprisonment by about a fifth, and the crime rate fell by about 25 percent.

States that raised their imprisonment rates averaged similar reductions in crime, though the declines show a lot of variation. Where prisons grew by more than 20 percent, crime fell by a little less than the national average. And in some places—such as Maine, Arkansas, and West Virginia—crime barely fell at all.

It seems clear, then, that ever-increasing rates of incarceration are not necessary to reduce crime. Although it’s difficult to say precisely how much the growing scale of punishment reduced crime in the 1990s, the crime decline has been sustained even as imprisonment fell in many states through the 2000s.

These data are good news for governors who want to cut prison budgets. But cuts alone may not work. Policymakers should study cases such as New York and New Jersey. These states cut imprisonment while building new strategies for sentencing, parole and after-prison programs.

The era of mass incarceration is not over, but there are signs of reversal. Given the social costs of incarceration—concentrated in poor neighborhoods—these are heartening trends. The last decade shows that public safety can flourish, even as punishment is curtailed.

Bruce Western, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, is author of Punishment and Inequality in America.

Money, morals, and mass incarceration

by Dr. Charles Kiker

This post is in affirmation of and response to Dr. Alan Bean’s blog on the Friends of Justice site, “‘The Power to Make Us One’: Heather McGhee’s One-People America.” In that post Dr. Bean acknowledges that racially charged language only serves to make white people defensive regarding the plight of black people in America, and thus is counterproductive in bringing about either racial reconciliation or the end to mass incarceration.

In the February 10th edition of The New York Times two entries caught my attention. One was an article by Sabrina Tavernise, “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.” The finding of those studies, in a nutshell, is that the education gap between the children of well-off families, regardless of race, and poor families, regardless of race, is widening, while the education gap between the children of white families and black families is narrowing.

And it is well known that the level of education is a reliable predictor of income success or lack thereof.

The other was an op-ed piece by Paul Krugman, “Money and Morals.” Not surprisingly, Krugman argues that the big problem for working class families is not moral decay, but “A drastic reduction in the work opportunities available to less-educated men.” Krugman states that “entry-level wages of male high school graduates have fallen 23% since 1970” when adjusted for inflation. To make matters worse, benefits have been drastically reduced. (more…)

Has mass incarceration given us safe streets?

By Alan Bean

Charles Lane is excited.  Crime rates have been falling across America and, if present trends continue, the safe streets we enjoyed in the 1950s will soon return. 

Lane sees mass incarceration as a curious paradox.  It’s too bad we had to lock up 2.3 million people to “take a bite out of crime”, he seems to say, but that’s the way the corn bread crumbles.

You get the impression that Lane, like most moderate liberals, has formed his conclusions about crime and punishment after reading a single book, in Lane’s case Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe.  How did America solve its crime problem?  We rolled up our sleaves and fixed it, Zimring says.

Fine, but how did we solve the crime problem?  What sort of tough, decisive political decisions did our leaders make?  There can be only one answer: we locked up millions of poor black males.

If Zimring and Lane think that’s a viable solution they need to read Michelle Alexander’s description of the post-prison experience in The New Jim Crow.  Have we solved the crime problem by creating (intentionally or by accident) a new racial caste? 

Lane’s self-congratulatory column explains why William Stuntz finished The Collapse of American Justice on a somber note:

The disaster that is contemporary American criminal justice does not look so disastrous in most places, which is why there has been no sustained political demand for large-scale reform of the justice system. Major changes in the system’s structure . . . require a critical mass of voters (also legislators and appellate judges) to support a program that carries little benefit for them.

Why should Charles Lane worry about problems that are largely invisible from the gentrified and suburban neighborhoods of Washington DC or New York City?  If the streets of the Big Apple are safe again, what’s the problem? (more…)

Arizona holds record for some of the longest, harshest sentences in country

In a recent article, Bob Ortega of the Tucsan Citizen discusses Arizona’s tough sentencing laws and the state’s over-reliance on incarceration. Arizona is known to have some of the longest, harshest sentences. With over $1 billion spent on prisons this year alone and a plan to create 6500 new prison beds over the next 5 years, there is no sign that Arizona plans to change its ways in the near future. Read about Arizona’s prison spending, tough sentencing, high crime rates, and more below. MW

Arizona prison sentences among toughest for many crimes

by Bob Ortega

Whether it’s putting a shoplifter behind bars for three years or a child-porn user away for 200 years, Arizona imposes among the longest, harshest sentences of any state in the country for a wide variety of crimes.

Politically, that has been popular, but the practice carries a hefty price tag. This year, the state will spend more than $1 billion to keep prisoners behind bars, and that figure will balloon if Arizona carries out plans to build or contract for as many as 6,500 new prison beds over the next five years.

Many other states, to cut costs as budget deficits have soared, have adopted sentencing alternatives over the past decade that have slashed their prison populations.

They diverted non-violent offenders into drug- or alcohol-treatment programs, increased tightly supervised probation, and took other steps that experts say save money while helping cut the likelihood that convicts will reoffend.

Nationally, crime rates have been falling for decades. Even with more convicted criminals on the street, many of these states have seen their crime rates fall as far or farther than in Arizona, where the prison population has climbed 50 percent over the past decade. (more…)

Most Americans think crime is on the rise

Although crime rates have been falling for decades, most Americans think crime is getting worse.  We have always felt this way regardless of whether crime rates are rising or falling.  The Gallup poll featured below offers a few explanations.  AGB

Americans Still Perceive Crime as on the Rise

Two-thirds say crime increasing in U.S., 49% in their local area

November 18, 2010
by Jeffrey M. Jones

PRINCETON, NJ — Two-thirds of Americans say there is more crime in the United States than there was a year ago, reflecting Americans’ general tendency to perceive crime as increasing. Still, the percentage perceiving an increase in crime is below what Gallup measured in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but is higher than the levels from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

1989-2010 Trend: Is There More Crime in the U.S. Than There Was a Year Ago, or Less?

Americans are somewhat more positive about the trend in crime in their local area, but still are more likely to see it going up than going down.

1972-2010 Trend: Is There More Crime in Your Area Than There Was a Year Ago, or Less?

These trends, based on Gallup’s annual Crime survey, come at a time when both the FBI and the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported drops in property and violent crime from 2008 to 2009 in separate studies, as well as documenting longer-term declines in both types of crime. Though the latest Gallup estimates, from an Oct. 7-10, 2010, survey, would reflect a more up-to-date assessment of the crime situation than those reports do, Americans were also likely to perceive crime as increasing both locally and nationally in the 2009 Gallup Crime survey.

The apparent contradiction in assessments of the crime situation stems from Americans’ general tendency to view crime as increasing. That said, the percentage holding this view appears to be higher when crime actually is increasing, as in the late 1980s and early 1990s, than when it is not.

Americans’ perceptions of crime may also be influenced by their general assessments of how things are going in the country. Americans generally believe the crime situation to be better when their satisfaction with national conditions is high, as in the late 1990s, when the economy was strong, and in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, when patriotism and support for political leaders surged. Thus, the current estimates of increasing crime may to some degree be inflated due to widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the U.S. today.

Apart from whether the crime rate is increasing, 60% of Americans believe the crime problem in the U.S. is “extremely” or “very serious,” up from 55% in 2009 and tied for the highest Gallup has measured since 2000. A majority of Americans have typically rated the U.S. crime problem as extremely or very serious in the 11-year history of this question.

As is usually the case, Americans are much less concerned about the crime problem in their local area, as 13% say the crime problem is extremely or very serious where they live.

2000-2010 Trend: Overall, How Would You Describe the Problem of Crime in the United States/in the Area Where You Live?

Americans who have been victimized by crime in the past 12 months are about twice as likely as those who have not been victimized to describe the crime problem in their local area as very serious (18% to 10%). Crime victims are also substantially more likely to perceive crime as increasing in their local area (62% to 43%). However, being a victim of crime bears little relationship to the way one perceives the crime situation in the U.S.

Survey MethodsResults for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Oct. 7-10, 2010, with a random sample of 1,025 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling.For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone-only). Each sample includes a minimum quota of 150 cell phone-only respondents and 850 landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents for gender within region. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, education, region, and phone lines. Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2009 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in continental U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.