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August 11, 2019

"Between 2007 and 2017, 34 States Reduced Crime and Incarceration in Tandem"

The title of this post is the title of this recent posting over at the Brennan Center for Justice authored by Cameron Kimble and Ames Grawert. The subheading provide a summary of its main points: "Some still argue that increasing imprisonment is necessary to reduce crime. Data show otherwise." Here are excerpts:

It’s now been several decades since states around the country began experimenting with criminal justice reform — specifically, by reducing the number of people behind prison bars. Now we can start to take stock of the results. They’re encouraging — but with the prison population still sky-high, there’s a lot more to do.

Between 2007 and 2017, 34 states reduced both imprisonment and crime rates simultaneously, showing clearly that reducing mass incarceration does not come at the cost of public safety. The total number of sentenced individuals held in state prisons across the U.S. also decreased by 6 percent over the same decade. And these drops played out across the country....

While it’s tempting to focus on the Southern states — which were some of the most notable early adopters of reform — reductions in the last decade occurred across the board. The Northeast saw the largest average decline in imprisonment rate (24 percent), with only Pennsylvania recording an increase (3 percent). Crime rates also dropped fastest in the Northeast region, falling by just over 30 percent on average.

By contrast, the Midwest saw imprisonment rates drop by only 1 percent on average, and that modest reduction was driven by Michigan (20 percent), where recent criminal justice reforms are focused on reducing recidivism. With returns to prison down 41 percent since 2006, the state is home to one of the most comprehensive statewide reentry initiatives in the country....

It’s tough to say why some states successfully reduced their prison population while others failed. One possible commonality relates to socioeconomic well-being. Over half of the states where imprisonment rates grew had poverty rates above the national average as well. Those states were also some of the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. West Virginia typifies this experience: crime rates dropped, but incarceration rose amidst the state’s struggles with opioid abuse and poverty....

The data clearly demonstrate that the United States’ prison population can be reduced without sacrificing the public safety gains of recent decades. Thirty-four states seem to have accepted this notion, as reflected by their (often) sharp declines in rates of imprisonment. Others lag far behind.

To this day, the United States imprisons its citizens at a higher rate than any other Western democracy. Though recent progress is surely encouraging, at the current rate of decarceration it would take nearly 40 years to return to imprisonment rates observed in 1971 — the last time the national crime rate was this low. And some aspects of justice reform are moving backwards. According to one recent study, jail reform is a purely urban phenomenon, as rural incarceration rates are actually increasing.

There’s no single solution to mass incarceration. Instead, states must continue making efforts to reduce imprisonment. And the minority of states that have not embraced decarceration need not look far to see that overreliance on incarceration is an ineffective and expensive means of keeping the public safe.

August 11, 2019 at 04:58 AM | Permalink


Even if incarceration and crime rates fell in tandem, that is only suggestive, not probative. For example, the fall in crime could have caused a fall in incarceration.

A regression analysis, while not the final word either, would certainly help.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Aug 11, 2019 9:44:45 PM

On second thought, that might not be too much help, either. For example, you have places like Baltimore, where both incarceration and crime are sky-high because the police are corrupt. So, for example, you have innocent people getting convicted of murders, and guilty people therefore not being convicted. The guilty person can go on to murder again, putting another innocent person into prison to boot.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Aug 11, 2019 10:05:01 PM

The upshot is that allowing a corrupt police force to remain in place is an excellent way to drive both incarceration and crime through the roof. And you still aren't incarcerating the criminals!

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Aug 11, 2019 10:08:37 PM

If you plot state prison populations in 2017 vs their populations in 2007 you get scatter about a straight line. The points above the line are gaining population and those below are losing population. A third of the states are on the line a third are above and a third are below. It looks like noise to me so I am not convinced that there is a well determined trend.

Posted by: John Neff | Aug 13, 2019 10:50:52 AM

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