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January 9, 2010

"As crime keeps dropping, it’s no time for backsliding"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable editorial from yesterday's USA Today.  Here are excerpts:

At the beginning of the 1990s violent crime was soaring, and some experts predicted that it would go even higher as a generation of "superpredators" came of age.

When the rate began going down instead, the predictions and explanations continued anyway.  One popular theory was that the drop was merely the result of the settling of gang turf wars related to crack cocaine. Another was that crime was heavily influenced by economics, so it would naturally go down at a time of surging growth.  As it turned out, the downward trend has continued for nearly 20 years, through good economic times and bad....

At the risk of being humbled by future trends, let us point to a couple of possible explanations, and a note of caution about what lies ahead.

One convincing reason for the crime drop is that incarceration works.  In 1990, according to the Justice Department, the U.S. prison population was 773,119.  Today the total is about 1.6 million.

Getting repeat violent offenders off the streets and keeping them behind bars longer is sure to have had some significant impact.  The most recent long-term study of recidivism by the Justice Department found that 67.5% of the prisoners released in 1994 committed another crime within three years. (The department is studying the class of 2005.)  More jail cells and longer sentences reduce the population of released prisoners and push them into an older age group, when they are less likely to be involved in the most violent crimes.

Another credible explanation is that law enforcement officials at all levels of government have been effectively employing community policing, rapid response teams and new technologies.

Despite these positive trends, however, there are reasons for concern.  States and localities are under extreme financial duress as the result of a sour economy combined with mandated spending tied to health care and overly generous retiree benefits.

Some are responding by cutting law enforcement and releasing prisoners early.  That's shortsighted.  There is no more important function of government than public safety.  If officials do not take that responsibility seriously, crime will no doubt go back up, reversing one of the truly good news stories of the past two decades.

I think it is appropriate to conclude that mass incarceration has played a role in reduced crime rates, though I also think it is especially important to bring more nuance to the discussion than does this editorial.  Incarceration rates began surging in the 1980s, but crime rates kept moving up through the early 1990s.  In addition, though society is certainly doing a better job incapacitating repeat violent offenders through longer terms of incarceration, the steady modern increases in incarceration has also involved long prison terms for some non-violent first offenders and the economic costs of mass incarceration has contributed greatly to modern state budget challenges.

That all said, the USA Todayis to be praised for stressing that we must not become complacent in light of our (surprising?) modern success reducing crime rates.  As I have said before, researchers and policy-makers should all be working extra hard trying to figure out exactly what has been working in this arena. I am troubled that this editorial suggests there might be easy answer: dynamic and unpredictable social and human realities likely preclude simple solutions.  But, aided by nuanced study and unbiased research, policy-makers can and should be able to make educated guesses as to what laws and polices are more likely (and less likely) to continue the positive trends of the last 20 years.  And, critically, with modern economic struggles and tight budgets, effectiveness needs to be assessed in light of both general crime reduction and cost-effectiveness for limited taxpayer dollars.

January 9, 2010 at 11:18 AM | Permalink

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» Some Notable Opinion Pieces from Crime and Consequences Blog
From yesterday's opinion pages, we have a couple of pieces that are as noteworthy for who wrote them as for what they say. USA Today has this editorial titled "As crime keeps dropping, it's no time for backsliding." They note... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 9, 2010 12:07:05 PM

Comments

This does need to be nuanced. During this same time period we have also greatly expanded our criminal code. One example is the article just below this post. Think about sex offender and drug and financial crimes. We also get to the bottom of every accident with a criminal investigation frequently resulting in indictments.

There are so many examples, such as a parent prosecuted when their child is injured for lack of proper buckling of a seat belt. Twenty years ago this would not be an issue for law enforcement. If crime is decreasing in the err of criminalization - it is truly remarkable.

Posted by: beth | Jan 9, 2010 1:41:34 PM

Let's start with the premise.

"There is no more important function of government than public safety."

Is that true? If so, I missed that footnote in every study of the Revolutionary War. With that premise, what role does the Constitution and Bill of Rights play if not second (or third or fourth) fiddle? Indeed, that premise can easily lead to a subversion of the Constitution and perhaps has to certain degrees.

There is another way to look at it. Why do we now have crime statistics more comparable to other industrialized countries that do not have draconian laws and that might not even have the death penalty? Why would our country have the majority of the world's incarcerated AND an higher crime rate?

See The Political Economies of Criminal Justice, where Mariano-Florentino Cuellar responds to Jonathan Simon's Governing Through Crime (Simon's blog).

Posted by: George | Jan 9, 2010 3:02:03 PM

George --

You question whether public safety is the paramount function of government, and suggest that, if it were, there's a serious danger that the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will be relegated to "second (or third or fourth) fiddle."

How right you are. I say let them blow every airplane out of the sky and destroy every skyscraper (and the people in them). Public safety, public schmafety! It's all a Republican boogeyman. What's a few thousand corpses here and there measured against the imperative of reading the Abdulmutallab's of the world their Miranda rights, and lawyering them up straight away with Lynne Stewart! The important thing is not that we find out who's been training with them or where and when the next attack is planned. Noooooooooooo!!! The important thing is that we guarantee they can clam up!

We can all be proud when the United States, or such of it as might remain, is replaced by a radical Islamic theocracy running things under Sharia law. That for sure will do wonders for the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Honestly, I just don't know what these public safety/neanderthal/Gitmo types are thinking about. Do you believe this: They want -- ney, they EXPECT -- to fly from one city to the next without getting blown into the next world! And it gets worse: They also expect the government to do what is necessary to obtain the intelligence that will prevent that from happening. What a bunch of facsists!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 9, 2010 5:15:14 PM

that was so funny bill i forgot to laugh. I'm with him. We have made much more things criminal. I have no problem hammering repeat and especially VIOLENT offenders. But all the nit pickers we have in prison now is just stupid.

as for the terrorists of the world. well when you catch them in the act. KILL EM and move on. There is no rule requiring we take prisoners in the middle of a battle.

i've know this was a religious war for years. it's the islam against the rest of us a continuation of the one that has been running for 100's of years back to when they controlled most of europe. Just till oil was found and they got money and power wasnt' much they could do to us.

Posted by: rodsmith3510 | Jan 9, 2010 6:21:16 PM

Here is another explanation to add to the cluster of factors. The young American male has been feminized by the vile left wing feminist school system. The young American male is now a pussy, allowing foreigners to kill his women and children. Thank the lawyer for castrating the young American male. He is fully prepared to sue the terrorists, however.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 9, 2010 11:28:38 PM

My goodness - there's no left to go on this one.

Posted by: beth | Jan 10, 2010 12:43:05 AM

rodsmith3510 --

"that was so funny...i forgot to laugh."

Honestly, you alone are worth the price of admission. I hadn't heard that one since seventh grade. So you get a star on your chart, as does anyone who reminds me of what it was like to be in middle school.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 10, 2010 1:30:32 AM

The folks at USA Today seem to think that the only way to protect society is to lock up everyone who goes to prison until they're too old to commit crimes any more. They don't say where the money to do that is coming from. Raise taxes, perhaps?

If we truly want the government to take its public safety responsibility seriously, wouldn't it make more sense (and be cheaper) to get serious about helping people who get out of prison so they don't go back? We pay lots of lip service to this concept, but what it usually comes down to is a probation officer waiting for you to slip up so he can send you back to prison. We just can't get past the idea that these people are bad and need to be continually punished. If you can't find a job (because no one is going to hire ex-felons when there are plenty of other people looking for work, and employers are worried about liability issues or getting their business on a sex offender registration list) or a place to live (tents and freeway bridges don't make good homes), and you have mental health or substance abuse issues, it's hard not to make a mistake or just give up.

A friend of mine was released after over 20 years in prison. The world had changed completely since the late 1970's, and he had no idea how to function. He told me that if he had not had a good friend who gave him a place to live and stuck by him when he couldn't get a job, he had planned to rob a convenience store to get sent back to prison. At least there he had a bed and food to eat. It took four years of wandering and doing odd jobs before he found a decent job and stability. If recidivism is the only realistic option we give people, why are we surprised when they take us up on it?

Please note that what you're all really thinking is that I shouldn't have a friend who's been in prison. Of course these people need help from someone, but not ME! Does anybody see a problem with that attitude?

Posted by: disillusioned layman | Jan 10, 2010 11:07:24 AM

Prisons are schools of crime. The more folks who get enrolled, the more graduates who come out schooled in crime. They just sent a guy to prison for 33 months for operating a betting operation from a foreign country over the internet. They can not find enough Americans to lock up so they are out hunting down foreigners.

Posted by: mpb | Jan 11, 2010 7:41:59 AM

bill: "We can all be proud when the United States, or such of it as might remain, is replaced by a radical Islamic theocracy running things under Sharia law"

me: right because radical Moslems who have failed to take control of such Moslem countries as Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, Libya, Iraq, and the UAE will be able to less than 1% of the U.S. population be able to seize control. Or are you saying if you would have been in charge in 1941, the U.S. would have immediately surrendered following the bombing of Pearl Harbor because the strongest nation in the world just is unable to fight mysognists with box cutters. what is even funnier, of course, is that the radical Islamic countries are actually an example of societies that place the highest emphasis on public safety - yes, we (exempting Supremacy Claus, perhaps who seems to share their views on feminisim and women being a threat to society) may laugh at their beliefs that women wearing clothes that do not cover their entire bodies or working outside of the house is a threat to society, but they actually believe that.

the primary goal of our society is to secure liberties. that was the goal behing the founding of our country and remarkable even during the War Between the States with a massive rebellion taking control of a large portion of the country, our society remained primarily focused on protecting liberty and securing rights. yes, there have been some missteps along the way, but with the possible exception of the slavery era and Jim Crow Era south, we have never had a society which placed public safety above "personal liberty." why you would want to reverse 200+ years of focus on personal liberty because you are worried about mysognistic terrorists who can't even take control in their own country is beyond my understanding.

Posted by: virginia | Jan 11, 2010 9:58:08 AM

Ginny --

"[T]he primary goal of our society is to secure liberties."

One, the primary goal of society is to secure life, without which there will be no liberty; and two, there is no such thing as the liberty to murder. We are entitled to take such steps as we find expedient to prevent these people from blowing up airplanes, which they have done and are planning to do again. Do you disagree?

"[Ev]en during the War Between the States with a massive rebellion taking control of a large portion of the country, our society remained primarily focused on protecting liberty and securing rights."

Wrongo. It was primarily focused on defeating the rebellion by such means as might prove necessary, including Sherman's march, starvation, POW camps with atrocious conditions, and the death penalty for traitors and spies.

"[W]hy you would want to reverse 200+ years of focus on personal liberty because you are worried about mysognistic terrorists who can't even take control in their own country is beyond my understanding."

It's beyond my understanding why you would adopt a head-in-the-clouds attitude toward an army of jihadists who think killing the "infidel" (i.e., anyone who isn't Muslim) is the path to 72 virgins; who have already killed thousands of our countrymen; who are planning at this hour to kill thousands more; and who have taken over most of the land mass of Afghanistan, not to mention the governments of Iran, Syria and (to a significant extent) Yemen as staging areas and support centers for terrorism.

I am "worried" about these martyrdom-driven killers -- the people who say they love death and have proved it -- for the same reason Barack Obama has come, albeit belatedly, to worry about them, namely, that they are serious and capable.

We dismiss them at our peril.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 11, 2010 11:13:48 AM

mpb --

"Prisons are schools of crime. The more folks who get enrolled, the more graduates who come out schooled in crime."

Then the crime rate would go up as more people are imprisoned. So that must be what's happened, right?

WRONG!!! The opposite has happened! As the prison population has massively increased over the past 20 years, the crime rate, according to Eric Holder himself, has fallen by a whopping 40%.

If they're crime schools, it would appear a lot of people are flunking. It might even be that crooks find imprisonment a sufficiently unpleasant experience that it's worth trying to avoid by -- hold onto your hat -- GOING OUT AND GETTING A NORMAL JOB LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE.

Now isn't that amazing?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 11, 2010 11:26:48 AM

I recall back in college, in the early to mid-80s, a professor indicated that it was likely that there would be a drop in the crime rate for the following reasons: (a) there is a much greater likelihood that one will commit a crime when one is a teen or young adult; and (b) there would be fewer younger people, in the years after the professor made that prediction, due to fewer births (i.e., the baby boom is over) . . .. which also is obviously relevant to issues regarding social security.

Posted by: Tim Holloway | Jan 11, 2010 2:46:27 PM

bill: "It's beyond my understanding why you would adopt a head-in-the-clouds attitude toward an army of jihadists"

me: its because they are impotent and powerless. the only power they have comes from unscruptulous politicians and media figures can exploit the fear that terrorists are about ready to bomb Bucksnort, Tennessee to create fear and enact an agenda that has nothing to do with terrorism - such as long prison sentences for drug offenders. the terrorist's only real weapon is irrational fear - the terrorists know that people being afraid of them and voluntarily giving up their freedoms is the only way they will win.

illustration of what I mean - I don't care how many terrorist thugs are out there, you aren't getting me to quit my job and put on a burkha because some guy in a cave in Afghanistan would kill me if he saw what I was wearing to work today :)

Posted by: virginia | Jan 11, 2010 5:36:19 PM

Ginny --

"[Jihadists] are impotent and powerless."

You might want to tell that to the survivors of the seven CIA agents who got killed in a jihadist suicide attack last week. Or the families of the 14 people killed by jihadist Major Hassan at Ft. Hood after his stream of e-mails from a radical Imam. Or any of the couple of hundred people on the Northwest flight to Detroit who are alive only because of some very quick and forceful action by the passengers. Or to Ted Olson, who today is defending gay marriage in USDC in California, but who eight and a-half years ago was talking on his cell phone with his wife moments before she was murdered, along with several hundred others, in the plane the jihadists flew into the Pentagon. This is not to mention the WTC.

The insistence that an army of suicidal Islamic warriors is "impotent" in the face of incontestable (and uncontested) evidence that they have killed thousands is somewhere well beyond merely being in denial. If a defendant-client of yours had similar illusions, you'd demand, and you'd get, a psychiatric exam for him.

"...the only power they have comes from unscruptulous politicians and media figures can exploit the fear that terrorists are about ready to bomb Bucksnort, Tennessee..."

No, the power they have comes from box cutters, TNT jackets, nitroglycerine and stuff like that.

Incidentally, the politcians who have been running things in Congress for slightly more than three years are Harry "Negro dialect" Reid and Nancy "a lot of things get said during the campaign" Pelosi. Take it up with them -- if you can pry them out of their transparency-through-closed-door-meetings on health care.

"...to create fear and enact an agenda that has nothing to do with terrorism - such as long prison sentences for drug offenders."

This is the first time I have heard, anywhere, that these nefarious (but unnamed) politicians have used terrorism to affect drug sentencing. What's the specific evidence for that, and what provisions of the Guidelines or the US Code affecting drug sentencing stem from a discussion, fearful or otherwise, of terrorism?


"...the terrorist's only real weapon is irrational fear."

Except for hijacked airplanes, suicide jackets, explosive underwear, the aforementioned nitroglycerine and, coming soon enough to a Bucksnort near you, anthrax. Not that any of these things actually exist, since you assure us they don't. The accounts of them are a media-created illusion, concocted in a studio in Burbank, like the moon landing.

"...the terrorists know that people being afraid of them and voluntarily giving up their freedoms is the only way they will win."

The terrorists have never said any such thing and you cite no evidence that they believe it. It's nothing more than the punchline of the American Left, which loves to pretend, as you do, that the attacks we've all seen never happened (which is false), that the reaction to them is hysteria (which is also false), and that people are "giving up their freedoms" (which again is false).

When JUST IN RECENT WEEKS we have seen Ft. Hood, the CIA massacre and the Christmas Day airline near-disaster, it's simply astounding that denial is still the chosen reaction of the American Left. Even Obama -- the man who formerly would never utter the evil phrase "war on terror" -- has had to give it up. One thing that makes Obama successful (despite his new low today in the CBS approval rating poll (46%)), is that he actually does have a grasp on reality. His followers on the Left might want to give it a try too.


Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 12, 2010 10:29:15 AM


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Posted by: charlesbrooks | Feb 2, 2010 12:14:38 AM

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