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July 23, 2014

"Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new 11-page report coming from the folks at The Sentencing Project.  Here is how the report begins and concludes:

Although the pace of criminal justice reform has accelerated at both the federal and state levels in the past decade, current initiatives have had only a modest effect on the size of the prison population.  But over this period, three states — New York, New Jersey, and California — have achieved prison population reductions in the range of 25%. They have also seen their crime rates generally decline at a faster pace than the national average.

Key findings:

• New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing their prison populations by 26% between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10%.

• California downsized its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. During this period, the nationwide state prison population decreased by just 1%.

• During their periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these three states than they did nationwide. Between 1999-2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31% and 30%, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26%.  Between 2006-2012, California’s violent crime rate drop of 21% exceeded the national decline of 19%.

• Property crime rates also decreased in New York and New Jersey more than they did nationwide, while California’s reduction was slightly lower than the national average. Between 1999-2012, New York’s property crime rate fell by 29% and New Jersey’s by 31%, compared to the national decline of 24%. Between 2006-2012, California’s property crime drop of 13% was slightly lower than the national reduction of 15%.

These prison population reductions have come about through a mix of changes in policy and practice designed to reduce admissions to prison and lengths of stay.  The experiences of these states reinforce that criminal justice policies, and not crime rates, are the prime drivers of changes in prison populations.  They also demonstrate that it is possible to substantially reduce prison populations without harming public safety....

At least in three states we now know that the prison population can be reduced by about 25% with little or no adverse effect on public safety.  Individual circumstances vary by state, but policymakers should explore the reforms in New York, New Jersey, and California as a guide for other states.

There is also no reason why a reduction of 25% should be considered the maximum that might be achieved. Even if every state and the federal government were able to produce such reductions, that would still leave the United States with an incarceration rate of more than 500 per 100,000 population — a level 3-6 times that of most industrialized nations.

In recent years a broader range of proposals has emerged for how to reduce the prison population and by various scales of decarceration.  In a recent right/ left commentary Newt Gingrich and Van Jones describe how they will “be working together to explore ways to reduce the prison population substantially in the next decade.”  The experiences of New York, New Jersey, and California demonstrate that it is possible to achieve substantial reductions in mass incarceration without compromising public safety.

July 23, 2014 at 01:43 PM | Permalink


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The California statistics are deceptive, because they don't really mean that thousands of people have been released from prison to the streets, where they might commit new crimes. Observers who have been following California's response to a Federal court Order to reduce the head count in its state prison system by about 45,000 inmates know that most of the reduction has come from moving inmates into county jails, not releasing them.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jul 23, 2014 2:56:55 PM

Well, California does do things the California way, continuing state control. None the less, I'm pretty happy to see this study and do hope that there are many more like it.

As always - more studies may be funded by special interests that dispute the findings, but it is impossible to imagine that we can continue on the course of the last 30 years, incarcerating for the benefit of financial stake holders.

Posted by: beth | Jul 23, 2014 11:09:22 PM

Of course, official crime statistics are completely fictitious, serving the aims of elected officials. The lawyer has fictitious charges, releases real vicious predators, and cites fictitious statistics. If you feel safer in New York and New Jersey, you are out of your mind. This is just lying pro-criminal lawyer propaganda.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 24, 2014 12:15:00 AM

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