« Some early reactions to Gov. Kasich's surprise decision delay execution to explore organ donation | Main | Is AG Eric Holder going to stay on the job until he truly reforms American criminal justice? »

November 15, 2013

"Reducing crime by reducing incarceration"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Times op-ed authored by David Cole and Marc Mauer.  Here are excerpts:

The United States remains the world leader in imprisonment, with an incarceration rate five times higher than that of many of our European allies. It wasn’t always this way. From 1925 through 1975, our incarceration rate was about 160 per 100,000 persons. Today it is nearly 700 per 100,000. It rose consistently for more than three decades, largely as a result of changes in policy, not crime rates. These policy changes, under the rubric of the “get tough” movement, were designed to send more people to prison and to keep them there longer. As the prison population has expanded, however, whatever impact incarceration may have had on crime has confronted the law of diminishing returns. Meanwhile, the corrections system costs us $80 billion a year.

In response to these concerns, recent years have seen significant reforms across the country. States from Texas to California to New York have reduced mandatory minimum sentences, softened “three-strikes” laws, or established drug-offender diversion programs. The number of people incarcerated in state prisons nationwide has dropped for three years in a row. California, New York and New Jersey have each reduced their prison populations by about 20 percent in the past decade — with no increases in crime.

In an era of heightened partisan politics, reform is a rare bipartisan issue. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Republican Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee don’t often see eye to eye, but they have all advocated measures to reduce mandatory minimums. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes free-market law reforms in the states, has identified reducing prison overcrowding as one of its priorities. Regardless of one’s politics, no one can be proud of the fact that the world’s wealthiest society locks up more of its citizens per capita than any other nation.

Most of the reforms thus far have focused on nonviolent offenders, especially drug-law violators — and for good reason. The large-scale incarceration of low-level drug offenders has had little impact on the drug trade; street-corner sellers and couriers are easily replaced. Incarceration imposes substantial costs on society at large, though, and on the life chances and families of those locked up.

If we are to tackle the incarceration rate effectively, we need to focus not only on those who receive the shortest sentences, but also on those who receive the longest sentences — lifers. Even as incarceration rates have begun to fall, life sentences have increased. One in nine prisoners in the United States is now serving a life sentence, including 10,000 serving life for a nonviolent offense (often the “third strike” under a three-strikes law). Nearly a third of the life sentences are imposed with no possibility of parole.

While most of these individuals have committed serious offenses, the increased reliance on life sentences is counterproductive. Criminal offenses tend to drop with age. As offenders grow older, their incarceration is increasingly less likely to have any incapacitative value. Nor is there any evidence that life sentences have greater deterrent effect. Studies find that it is the certainty of punishment, not its severity, that is most correlated with deterrence. Yet many states have adopted a “life means life” policy with no consideration of parole. Such sentences effectively write off the offender, rejecting the possibility of redemption altogether....

A key factor in the prison expansion of recent decades has been that offenders sentenced to prison are serving much longer sentences. American sentences today are frequently two to three times the length for similar offenses in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France and other industrialized nations. Sentencing reform has begun with the low-hanging fruit of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, but if it is to succeed, we must reduce the length of criminal sentences generally.

Recent related post:

November 15, 2013 at 11:28 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Reducing crime by reducing incarceration":


I'm delighted to see Cole and Mauer have the candor at last to confirm what I've been saying for a long time: It's not about the much-heralded "low level, non-violent" offender. It's about the worst, most savage and violent criminals. The agenda all along has been to benefit that crowd.

But while their honesty is welcome (if unusual), their thesis is nonsense. We'll reduce crime by reducing incarceration?

Sure we will. That's why they cherrypick a few states over a few years while they deep-six the single most glaring fact about crime, nationwide, over the last generation: That the massive increase in imprisonment has gone hand-in-hand with the massive DECREASE in crime.

However, if people want to swallow this absurdity, fine. The logical extension is that we can eliminate crime altogether by eliminating prison altogether.

Go for it!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 15, 2013 4:09:19 PM

"Studies find that it is the certainty of punishment, not its severity, that is most correlated with deterrence."

Funny, none of the "smart on crime" proposals that I have read about or that have been implemented in my state (CA) have done anything to increase the certainty of punishment. If anything, here in CA, we have increased the burden of the process by which we go about getting them to rehabilitation. Punishment is like a bad word, unless someone is raped, robbed or killed.

Posted by: David | Nov 18, 2013 11:21:41 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB