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May 29, 2011

"Conservatives and criminal justice: With a record of being tough on crime, the political right can afford to start being clever about it"

The title of this post comes from the headline of this interesting recent piece from The Economist.  Here are excerpts:

The word commonly used to describe a politician who publicly announces he wants to send fewer criminals to prison is “loser”.  But back in February there was David Williams, president of Kentucky’s Senate, speaking in favour of a bill that would do just that. The bill in question would steer non-violent offenders towards drug treatment rather than jail. It is projected to save $422m over the next decade, and will invest about half those savings in improving the state’s treatment, parole and probation programmes.  Mr Williams, who believes Kentucky “incarcerates too many people at too great a cost,” praised the bill for recognising “the possibility for forgiveness and redemption and change in someone’s life”.  It passed the Republican-controlled Senate 38-0, and on May 17th Mr Williams went on to win the Republican nomination for governor.

Mr Williams and his Republican colleagues join the swelling ranks of conservatives who have taken up the cause of sentencing and prison reform.  In February Nathan Deal, Georgia’s Republican governor, announced a bill to create a council to recommend changes in how his state sentences criminals.  On May 11th Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Mary Fallin, signed a law expanding alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders.  This follows similar measures in South Carolina and Texas, both of them conservative states with Republican governors.

Driving these reforms is a simple factor: cost. Over the past two decades, crime rates have fallen but prison populations have risen. More people have been jailed for more crimes — particularly non-violent drug-related crimes — and kept there longer....

Texas began tackling these problems in the last decade.  In 2003 it started mandating probation rather than prison for first-time offenders caught with less than a gram of hard drugs.  Two years later it gave the probation board more money to improve supervision and treatment programmes.  In 2007, faced with predictions that it would need over 17,000 new prison beds by 2012, requiring $1.13 billion to build and $1.5 billion to operate, Texas allocated $241m to fund treatment programmes.  Since 2003 crime of many kinds has declined in Texas.  Between 2007 and 2008, Texas’s incarceration rate fell by 4.5%, while nationally the rate rose slightly.  Both juvenile crime and the number of juveniles in state institutions have declined.

These reforms saved money.  In slowing recidivism, they turned prisoners from tax burdens into taxpaying citizens.  And they acknowledged something that tough-on-crime rhetoric has too long ignored: almost everyone in prison will eventually return to society. Better they return as good neighbours and productive citizens.

The fact that the reforms that produced these encouraging figures came from hang-em-high Texas, and not, say, hippie Vermont, has given them political as well as policy credibility.....  Just as Richard Nixon could open relations with China without being thought soft on communism, so conservatives can push for sentencing reform without being considered soft on crime.

Some recent and older related posts on the modern politics of sentencing issues:

May 29, 2011 at 09:36 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I'll see treatment and early release as 'clever' when their is enough studies showing it works. Most show no real difference. Look at this one from England:
http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23942368-pound-11m-initiative-to-help-freed-convicts-fails-to-cut-reoffending-rate.do

Many others, like the drop in the crime rate since the implementation of three strikes laws and greater use of the death penalty, just reinforce their use.

Posted by: MikeinCT | May 29, 2011 10:57:29 PM

Prof. Berman excludes more conservative reviews such as this thoughtful one, by a top crime expert.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304066504576345553135009870.html

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 30, 2011 12:57:02 AM

There is little doubt that a prison bed is a scarce resource, and one which should be used in an efficient manner. But just because a state may squeeze more bang for the buck from its prison system does not mean that Plata is any less of a travesty.

To the extent, of course, a prison bed is filled by a rapist, home invader, murderer rather than a casual drug user, then I think all can agree that's a good thing, and states should try to do that, of course.

It is funny--this article contains the Fox Butterfield fallacy:

"Over the past two decades, crime rates have fallen but prison populations have risen."

Ha.

Posted by: federalist | May 30, 2011 8:28:46 AM

federalist --

"Over the past two decades, crime rates have fallen but prison populations have risen."

This is like saying in the late 1950's, "Over the past two years, polio rates have fallen, but use of polio vacine continues to rise."

I guess the Left thinks the rest of us are as stupid as they are dishonest.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 30, 2011 6:27:12 PM

Bill, if it were also true that in areas where fewer people received polio vaccines, polio declined MORE, your analogy might work. States that incarcerated less saw LARGER drops in crime. But by all means don't let reality get in the way of your ideology.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | May 31, 2011 7:59:53 AM

"States that incarcerated less saw LARGER drops in crime."

Kent addressed that on an earlier thread, and I will not repeat his answer here.

I will add this: Over the last generation, EVERY state has increased its prison population, almost all of them substantially, and EVERY state has seen its crime rate fall, again almost all of them substantially.

I will also add that readers might want to take a look at the article by James Q. Wilson cited by SC in the second comment on this thread. Wilson is a leading, if not the leading, criminologist in the United States. In the article, he lists the increase in the prison population as FIRST among the factors that has led to the crime decrease.

In addition, I would cite this study by the Pew Foundation: http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/uploadedFiles/Crime%20Incarceration%20QA.pdf.

The Pew study does NOT find that reducing the prison population reduces crime. Instead, it finds that the substantial INCREASE in the prison population accounts for a quarter of the massive REDUCTION in crime in our country in the last two decades.

But by all means we shouldn't let findings by the top neutral and informed experts get in the way of standard-issue, pro-criminal ideology.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 31, 2011 9:39:22 AM

"Over the past two decades, crime rates have fallen but prison populations have risen."

It could also mean that despite lower crime rates, more people percentage-wise are being imprisoned for those crimes.

Crime rates are not dependent on any one factor but incarceration rate changes can be easily tied to a specific cause as they are usually the result of policy changes (Three Strikes, War On Drugs, etc). If the crime rate falls but the incarceration rate increases, it proves nothing without eliminating all factors except the policy change, which no one has done.

Posted by: NickS | May 31, 2011 9:47:57 AM

NickS --

Do you believe your view of the reason for falling crime takes into account factors that were inexplicably missed by the scholars who undertook the Pew Foundation study, the University of Chicago study, and the work done by Professor Wilson?

That would be extremely odd, but if that's what you think, I'm willing to listen to why.

P.S. This debate is beginning to have a surreal quality to it. A ten year-old would be able to figure out that, when you incarcerate more of the people who commit crime, less crime gets committed. But if that weren't enough, I have cited three expert studies to the same effect (not exactly surprisingly). And yet, the response among some here remains the same. Denial.

Amazing. This just tells you how dug-into-the-bunker some of the Left is. They want criminals released no matter what the effect on crime, and if people get hurt, that's just too bad.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 31, 2011 10:06:47 AM

Bill, even by the findings cited by Pew, Wilson et. al., 75% of the crime reduction came from other factors - studies which in fact DID isolate the mass incarceration element and found it wasn't decisive. But you want to ignore the evidence-based findings to focus solely on one factor that generated the minority of crime reduction instead of seeking to identify and enhance crime-reducing trends that clearly work much better for less money, even though the research (again from the people cited by Wilson) shows diminishing returns on that tactic. Why? Because admitting imprisonment wasn't the sole cause of crime reduction would fly in the face of your ideology, a classic case where the overlap described in this graphic appears ridiculously thin indeed.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | May 31, 2011 11:34:34 AM

"[Y]ou want to ignore the evidence-based findings to focus solely on one factor that generated the minority of crime reduction..."

At last! An admission that increased incarceration helps reduce crime. Gads, it was like pulling teeth.

Yes, increased incarceration generated a minority of crime reduction. But the reduction amounted to thousands upon thousands of fewer crimes and crime victims. Fewer people raped, mugged, yoked, beaten, swindled, you name it. This is to be welcomed and ENCOURAGED IN FUTURE PLANNING, rather than dismissed.

Moreover, imprisonment, while a minority segment, was the largest single factor in crime reduction. This also is not to be dismissed. Nor would dismissing it do the pro-criminal side any good, since the next two in line were more intense and aggessive police work and the reduction in the crack wars, the latter being brought about in part by serious (or should I say "tuff") sentencing for crack dealers.

"...instead of seeking to identify and enhance crime-reducing trends that clearly work much better for less money, even though the research (again from the people cited by Wilson) shows diminishing returns on that tactic."

Of course I've never said that incarceration should be used to the exclusion of other measures (two of which I just noted), nor do I believe any such thing.

To the contrary, it is others who have been casting about for something, anything, to falsely deny that incarceration reduces crime. It got to the point that the reduction in crime was shuffled off to increased use of the Internet, even though not a single scholarly study shows any such thing.

As to diminishing returns to scale: Of course! Who thinks (or has said) anything else? The law of diminishing returns applies across the board -- to incarceration, rehab, drug programs, you name it. It is, like regression toward the mean, a uniform feature of statistical analysis.

"Why? Because admitting imprisonment wasn't the sole cause of crime reduction would fly in the face of your ideology..."

First, at no point did I (or Kent) maintain that imprisonment is the SOLE cause of crime reductiion. Indeed, we said the opposite. You're just making up our position out of whole cloth -- and not for the first time.

Second, ideology is indeed in play -- the pro-criminal ideology, that is, the one that had to be dragged kicking and screaming to admit, at last, that imprisonment reduces crime.

And the reason it took so long to get that admission? Because the pro-criminal side knows full well that the knowledge that imprisonment reduces crime will (as it should) create significant doubts about whether we should just breezily accept the harm to future victims that will come about if there are mass prisoner releases.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 31, 2011 1:35:33 PM

As much as the left will never admit it, the "War on Drugs" has likely had a huge positive impact on the crime rates. I agree with Bill, it is plainly obvious to even a child that keeping bad people in prison will reduce crime. And this is true of even so-called "non-violent" prisoners, who are often only described as "non-violent" because they were only convicted of their "non-violent" crime, not the many other crimes they committed.

According to one study, alcohol and drug users are 6-7 times more likely to commit a violent crime than their sober counterparts. Releasing tens of thousands of "casual drug users" will be a disaster.

"People with mental illnesses who abuse substances have violent crime rates which are six to seven times higher than the general population – as do people with no mental health issues who have similar drink or drugs problems." http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/sep/06/substance-abuse-mental-illness-crimes

Posted by: TarlsQtr | May 31, 2011 4:00:27 PM

"Yes, increased incarceration generated a minority of crime reduction. But the reduction amounted to thousands upon thousands of fewer crimes and crime victims. Fewer people raped, mugged, yoked, beaten, swindled, you name it."

I'm still waiting for the first prosecution of a Wall Street insider for financial crimes related to the subprime mortgage bubble.

Posted by: Fred | May 31, 2011 6:39:46 PM

Fred stated: "I'm still waiting for the first prosecution of a Wall Street insider for financial crimes related to the subprime mortgage bubble."

Are you implying that because "Wall Street insiders" got away with alleged crimes, that others should as well? If not, what is your point? You should not justify bad behavior by pointing out the bad behavior of others.

Hey, I'm still waiting for the politicians and government appointees who created the mortgage bubble to be arrested, but it doesn't make me want other criminals to go free.

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Jun 1, 2011 2:51:40 PM

TarlsQtr at 2:51 P.M.: "Are you implying that because 'Wall Street insiders' got away with alleged crimes, that others should as well?"

No.

I made that remark within the context of the discussion on this blog about the decline in crime rates and the reasons for the decline. As I wrote in a recent comment thread on the 2010 FBI preliminary report on crime rates, increased incarceration rates and increased lengths of incarceration have played a material role in this reduction. I am pleased that this has happened.

However, the usual discussion here in general and about the decline in crime rates in particular focuses primarily on street crimes, CP and sex crimes, the DP, and crimes of violence. There are some posts from time to time about financial crimes.

I have no intention of smearing everyone involved in the mortgage bubble. However, notwithstanding the lack of presecutions or for that matter the lack of any meaningful investigations, I think we can assume a non-trivial number of crimes were committed somewhere in the origination, servicing, and securitization processes.

The question then becomes how do we quantify the number of crimes committed and more importantly the number of victims. Reasonable people can disagree about the definitions used to make these quantifications. However, if defined broadly or maybe not so broadly, we may find that the crime rates have not fallen as much as we thought. The rates may even have risen.

I paraphrase an old country song: sometimes a man can steal more with a fountain pen than with a six gun.

Posted by: Fred | Jun 1, 2011 3:38:05 PM

Fred:

"I have no interest in smearing everyone involved in the mortgage bubble".

How do you separate financial home mortgage crimes from crimes committed by the congress, the education establishment and the executive branch of government (I do not capitalize organizations I have no respect for).

Dumb is as Dumb does!

If stupidity were a crime, 99% of the Amerikan Population would be guilty.

Posted by: albeed | Jun 1, 2011 11:45:02 PM

Albeed:

My remark that you referenced only concerned regular people. Accusations of fraud have been thrown around indiscriminately concerning the mortgage bubble.

All of us here probably know several people who worked somewhere in the process, the vast majority of which (and probably all) committed no criminal or unlawful acts.

I was attempting to not tar every regular person involved in the process.

Posted by: Fred | Jun 2, 2011 8:56:50 AM

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