The Atlantic’s David Frum in a piece May 11 asked a question that has been a discussion across the spectrum of criminal-justice scholars for decades: Can America have fewer prisoners without more crime?
From the outset, this question highlights the tricky business of drawing a meaningful correlation — direct, inverse, or none at all — between the rates at which offenders are incarcerated and the effect that has on the incidence of crime. In recognition of this difficulty, Frum points to two sources that have given opposing interpretations to explain the drop of crime seen nationwide since the early 1990s:
Stephen Levitt of the University of Chicago in 2004 credits more prisons and more cops for the largest part of the drop in crime. In the opposite corner, the Brennan Center at New York University argues that prisons deserve little credit for the decline in crime in the 1990s and actually became counter-productive in the 2000s.
Other research makes the relation between incarceration and crime rates no less murky. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, between 2008 and 2013, incarceration rates in Texas fell by 10 percent, while overall crime rates sank 18 percent. However, over the same period, Nebraska experienced a reduction in crime rates of 10 percent, while actually seeing an increase in incarceration.
So what to make of a situation that presents with such conflicting conclusions? To begin, it’s difficult to argue with the fiscal and human implications pointed out by Frum related to our current approach to criminal justice in the U.S. In 2010, maintaining the nation’s sprawling justice system cost taxpayers around $80 billion. More than just putting a strain on the financial stability of state budgets, widespread incarceration has a deleterious effect on family life and the ability of ex-offenders to secure employment after release, among other concerns.
Since enacting its reforms, Texas has seen the closure of three prisons and a 25 percent reduction in its recidivism rate.
It may yet be true that the complexities surrounding the criminal-justice system make it difficult to pin down the exact correlation between incarceration and its role in the recent lowering of crime rates. But at this point, it likely doesn’t profit us to continue trying to nail down such an elusive relationship, and instead we can jump straight to examining states that have managed to reduce both rates simultaneously.
In 2007, having projected a prison-bed shortfall of 17,000 as incarceration rates climbed, the Texas legislature sought to identify ways to curb prison growth while maintaining public safety. With the realization that a short-term investment would avert greater, long-term spending, Texas made a $241 million investment in evidence-based programs designed to reduce recidivism, institute swift and graduated sanctions, and establish drug courts.
To address stubbornly high juvenile incarceration rates, Texas took steps to reform that corrections system as well. The legislature passed reforms aimed at banning the commitment of juveniles to secure state facilities for misdemeanor offenses, reducing the maximum age in which juveniles would be permitted in those facilities, and redirecting certain offenders toward evidence-based community programs instead of jailing them.
The result has been impressive. Since enacting these reforms, Texas has seen the closure of three prisons and a 25 percent reduction in its recidivism rate. Additionally, Texas taxpayers have saved nearly $3 billion in prison costs and have enjoyed their lowest rate of crime since 1968.
As Texas has taken point in sensible criminal-justice reform, other states have followed suit with similar legislation. Georgia and Alabama have recently passed sweeping reforms aimed at lowering their own high imprisonment rates (particularly among African Americans) and seeking to divert minor, lower-risk offenders toward community-based programs proven to reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
We should take care, at this point, to distinguish between the types of crime being avoided. We can agree with Frum that the main thing prison does well is incapacitate violent and dangerous offenders for long periods. But can we say the same for lesser crimes, especially those related to drugs?
Perhaps not. Frum says only 3.7 percent of state inmates are there solely for drug possession, but a deeper look reveals that many are there for drug possession plus other crimes — including those against property — that are committed to support a drug habit. It behooves us to take this into account. All told, a significant percentage of the prison population are nonviolent offenders. Prison sentences for many of them — between six months and a year — are long enough for them to start losing connections with family or employment opportunities, and open them to the possibility of being acclimated to the culture of criminality inside prisons that harbor longer-term, violent offenders. In such cases, we may actually be less safe as the incapacitation benefit is overwhelmed by the fact that the nonviolent offender leaving prison is more of a risk now than to begin with.
Understanding the precise relationship between incarceration and crime rates is a complex, if not impossible, task. But such precision isn’t necessary to see that we can indeed answer Frum’s central question: Yes. America can have fewer prisoners without more crime. One need only look to the successful efforts in our states for the path forward.