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July 24, 2014

"There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new posting by Emily Badger now up at the Washington Post Wonkblog. Here are excerpts:

Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can't commit crime. The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will.

By this thinking, our streets are safer the more people we lock up and the longer we keep them there. This logic suggests that there would be serious public-safety costs to reducing prison populations, a policy in the news again after the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted last Friday to retroactively extend new, lighter drug sentencing guidelines to about 46,000 offenders currently serving for federal drug crimes. As the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys warned, opposing the move, "tough sentencing laws . . . led to safer communities, which are now threatened."

Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. [A] recent decline in state prison populations in New York and New Jersey, [as noted by] a new report by the Sentencing Project, [has not resulted in a crime surge]....

It's important to note that crime has been falling all over the country over this same time, for reasons that are not entirely understood (and, no, not entirely explained by the rise of incarceration). But the Sentencing Project points out that declining violent crime rates in New York and New Jersey have actually outpaced the national trend, even as these states have reduced their prison populations through changing law enforcement and sentencing policies.

We certainly can't take these three charts and conclude that reducing prison populations reduces crime. But these trends do make it harder to argue the opposite — particularly in the most heavily incarcerated country in the world.

I am not sure which of the many data-driven publications by The Sentencing Project served as the basis for this latest Workblog posting. But I am sure, as evidenced by these posts from the last few weeks, that sentencing fans ought to make a habit of checking out Wonkblog regularly:

UPDATE:  I now realize that the recent Sentencing Project publication reference in this post is the basis for the Wonkblog discussion.

July 24, 2014 at 09:03 AM | Permalink


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Please tell me if the information I found on gordondefense.com is true. Under FAQ ...

I received a mandatory minimum sentence. Do I qualify for a reduction?

Answer: Individuals who received a mandatory minimum sentence are not eligible for a reduction pursuant to this amendment UNLESS the person received (a) the safety valve or (b) a reduced sentence because of cooperation.

Posted by: Chrystal | Jul 22, 2014 10:43:11 AM

Here's a link directly to the cited article:


Posted by: Chris Jenkins | Jul 24, 2014 12:58:02 PM

Now Bill Otis would disagree most extraneously and have 14 links to backup his paragraphs of lecture.

But he has ran away as a result of the start to dismantle the federal guidelines.

Posted by: MidwestGuy | Jul 24, 2014 2:45:04 PM

Can any one picture today's youth doing the work of breaking into car, or snatching a purse and running for it? Too much work. Crime may have gone out of fashion.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 24, 2014 11:21:21 PM

Enough about Bill Otis! He didn't comment here for our entertainment, but for our enlightenment. For reasons of his own he has moved elsewhere. Get over it. This blog presents thoughtful and challenging ideas on its own, and it does just fine without him.

Posted by: arfarf | Jul 25, 2014 7:43:32 AM

Bill Otis was the only licensed lawyer advocating for real public safety, and victims rights, not to be a cry baby in court, with a paid lawyer representative, but to be safe. He also had a lot of useful experience and insider information about the system.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 25, 2014 7:48:01 AM

Does anyone know why Bill no longer comments here? I disagreed with just about everything he said, but respected his experience and willingness to engage. I fear it may be because he has become some sort of official voice for anti-reformists and has been muzzled because he might stray from the party line or say something overly provocative. But I have no particular insight into the circumstances. Thanks.

Posted by: Howard | Jul 26, 2014 8:26:11 PM

Sterilize and be wise. How many criminals have daddies who were criminals? If the statistics are high, then it should be considered as a placebo to sterilize all convicts, male or female. Think about it folks.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Jul 26, 2014 9:44:28 PM

For those interested, one can still read Bill Otis here:


He provided a useful p.o.v. up to a point (especially when he wasn't just phoning it in as some sort of character) but the "engagement" was somewhat mixed, suggested by his friend/sparing partner Doug Berman himself getting a bit annoyed at it. If he wishes for the time being to focus on other matters, hopefully it will be all for the best.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 27, 2014 1:42:56 PM

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