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November 25, 2006

Less crime due to fewer prisoners?

Many debate whether the modern massive increase in incarceration rates account for the modern reductions in crime.  Intriguingly, this piece from yesterday's Washington Post suggests a link between a decrease in incarceration and a decrease in crime.  Here are portions of a terrific article:

It is one of the least-told stories in American crime-fighting. New York, the safest big city in the nation, achieved its now-legendary 70-percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer and fewer of its citizens during the past decade.  The number of prisoners in the city has dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week.  That runs counter to the national trend, in which prison admissions have jumped 72 percent during that time.

Nearly 2.2 million Americans now live behind bars, about eight times as many as in 1975 and the most per capita in the Western world.  For three decades, Congress and dozens of legislatures have worked to write tougher anti-crime measures.  Often the only controversy has centered on how to finance the construction of prison cells.  New York City officials, by contrast, are debating whether to turn some old cells in downtown Brooklyn into luxury shops.

"If you want to drive down crime, the experience of New York shows that it's ridiculous to spend your first dollar building more prison cells," said Michael Jacobson, who served as New York's correction commissioner for former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and now is president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which studies crime-fighting trends worldwide. "I can't tell you exactly why violent crime in New York declined by twice the national rate," he said. "But I can tell you this: It wasn't because we locked up more people."

Perhaps as intriguing is the experience in states where officials spent billions of dollars to build prisons.  From 1992 to 2002, Idaho's prison population grew by 174 percent, the largest percentage increase in the nation.  Yet violent crime in that state rose by 14 percent.  In West Virginia, the prison population increased by 171 percent, and violent crime rose 10 percent.  In Texas, the prison population jumped by 168 percent, and crime dropped by 11 percent.

November 25, 2006 at 08:00 AM | Permalink


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Of course, one of the reasons NYC had such a drop was that they deceided not to tolerate quality of life offenses. I think that once you should the criminal class or the potential criminal class that the government means business, you have a drop in crime. That leads to the drop in incarceration.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 26, 2006 11:32:48 AM

But federalist, what does it mean that NYC didn't "tolerate" quality of life offenses or showed crimals they "mean business" if they were incarcerating fewer people for less time? What does "tough" mean in the absence of, or in a state of diminished threat of, possible incarceration? That's the interesting question to me: What is tough if not just locking people up? What is it BESIDES incarceration that worked?

BTW, I recently compared incarceration and crime rate stats for NY and TX on Grits along just those lines, see:


One commenter there suggested reasons why such comparisons among states may not be valid, though I'm not sure I agree.

Hope everyone enjoyed the Thanksgiving weekend more than us Longhorn fans. :-(

Go Buckeyes!

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 26, 2006 12:11:23 PM

I think that it has to do with the fact that intervention happens before a criminal goes to far. I grew up in NYC. I remember the Dinkins days. Crime was out of control. Giuliani did put a huge dent in the problem. And one of his policies was to attack quality of life issues--harshly. They went after turnstyle jumpers. They caught a ton of parolees, outstanding warrant people etc. etc. Maybe there was some scaring straight. Who knows? But there was no lenience, that's for sure.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 26, 2006 12:52:46 PM

federalist, I'm afraid I have to disagree with part of what you said - cracking down on turnstile jumpers, homeless sweeps, etc., were certainly high profile, much publicized "tuff" measures in NYC, but by comparison to Texas, for example, NY is showing tremendous leniency for low-level crimes according to these data - at least so far as incarcerating people for them. What's more, they've been rewarded with lower crime rates. That's what makes their case so interesting.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 27, 2006 7:50:32 AM

The point is the delta (i.e., the change). NYC got tougher on these quality of life offenses.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 27, 2006 11:32:05 AM

I guess I just would like to know what constitutes "tougher," even for "quality of life offenses," in light of the statistics about LESS incarceration? Tough how?

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 27, 2006 4:47:21 PM

They got tougher earlier. That deterred the lower level crimes, which never led to bigger crimes. Now we have less incarceration.

Posted by: federalist | Nov 27, 2006 4:51:03 PM

Per the WA State study, "scared straight" increases the crime rate by over 6%, and cutting off the heads of anyone charged with "quality of life offenses" might decrease crime as well. Indeed, look at the quality of life and the crime rate in Iraq for a good example.

All kidding (sort of) aside: Fixing "Broken Windows" finds Giuliani only partly as great as Achilles though with the same vulnerable heel.

Posted by: George | Nov 27, 2006 5:41:33 PM

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