From the Justice Policy Institute: Response to Right-Wing Critique of Crime Drop

Violent Crime and Property Crime Levels Fall to Lowest Level Since 1973

Despite Tough-on-Crime Rhetoric, Researchers Find Little Relationship Between Crime Rates and Prison Expansion

Washington, DC -- A report to be released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics on Sunday (Criminal Victimization, 2002) shows that overall violent crime and property crime rates in 2002 are at the lowest recorded rates since the inception of this crime reporting survey in 1973. Ironically, this report follows two other recent BJS studies showing that, despite sharp declines in crime, prison populations are on the rise, and that if current incarceration rates hold, 6% of all Americans, 11% of men, 17% of Hispanic men and 32% of African American men born in 2001 are likely to end up in prison at some point in their lifetime.

While it is widely recognized that prisons have a damaging impact on the American economy and specific communities, the debate over whether prison expansion has impacted the crime rate has been politicized by the "tough-on-crime" rhetoric of elections and has become detached from social science research. Recent commentators such as George Will and Bill O'Reilly have argued that crime is dropping because of the growing use of prisons. But academics and researchers who have re-examined the efficacy of incarceration as a crime control measure have found only a small and diminishing relationship between crime rates and prison expansion.

For example, JPI analyzed Criminal Victimization, 2002 and BJS' prisoner survey (Prisoners in 2002) published earlier this month and found that regions that had slower prison population growth between 2001-2002 (both the Northeast and the Midwest had prison population increases of 1.9%) had declines in their homicide arrest rates (-4.8% in the Northeast, -2.8% in the Midwest), while regions that experienced higher prison growth rates (South, +2.5%, West, +3.0%) actually experienced increases in homicides (+2.1% in South, +5.2% in the West).

"If we are going to continue to bring crime rates down, particularly in those neighborhoods most negatively affected by high crime and high incarceration rates, we need to separate political rhetoric from sound crime and corrections policy," said Vincent Schiraldi, Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute. "Policymakers in America need to follow the example of states like Texas, Michigan and California and start to make more moderate use of prisons by returning sentencing discretion to judges and diverting people into treatment instead of incarceration."

In the last few years, the following critiques of the utilization of prison to reduce crime have been published:

  • A University of Texas researcher found that 79 to 96 percent of the violent crime drop of the 1990's cannot be explained by prison expansion. About 25 percent of the total drop in crime is due to prison expansion, and further prison expansion will have far less return in reducing crime. [Spelling, William (2000). "The Limited Importance of Prison Expansion." In The American Crime Drop, ed. Blumstein, Alfred and Wallman, Joel. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2000.]
  • A University of Missouri-St. Louis researcher showed that only about one-fourth of the drop in homicides nationally is attributable to incarceration. Changes in living arrangements among young adults and falling marriage rates were shown to be contributing factors to the drop in homicides. [Rosenfeld, Richard (2000). "Patterns in Adult Homicide: 1980-1995." In The American Crime Drop, ed. Blumstein, Alfred and Wallman, Joel. Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2000.]
  • A John Jay College of Criminal Justice researcher showed that incarceration may drive up crime rates in places where a "tipping point" of more than 1 to 1.5 percent of a community is incarcerated. [Clear, Todd R. "The Problem with 'Addition by Subtraction': The Prison-Crime Relationship in Low Income Communities," in Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, NY: The New Press, (2003), pp 181-194.]
  • The Justice Policy Institute found no correlation between states that increased drug offense admissions to prison and lower drug use. [Homan, Barry; Beatty, Philip; Schiraldi, Vincent; Poor Prescription: The Cost of Imprisoning Drug Offenders. (August, 2000). Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute.]
  • The Sentencing Project showed that there were "diminished returns" to using prison as a way of reducing crime: throughout the nation, states with below average increases in incarceration experienced greater reductions in violent, property and total crime than states with above average increases in incarceration. [Gainsborough, Jenni and Mauer, Marc. Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s. (2000) Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.]

In 2000, the Justice Policy Institute compared the change in incarceration rates and crime rates in two of America's largest states -- Texas and New York -- and found that, despite New York's much more modest use of incarceration, its reduction in crime far outstripped that of Texas. During the 1990s, Texas added more prisoners to its prison system (+98,081) than New York's entire prison population (73,233) by some 24,848 prisoners. This means that the number of prisoners that Texas added during the 1990s was 34% higher than New York's entire prison population. While Texas had the fastest growing prison system in the country during the 1990s, New York had the third slowest growing prison population in the US. Over all, during the 1990s, Texas added five times as many prisoners as New York did (18,001). Yet since 1995, the study found that the percentage decline in New York's crime index was four times greater than Texas' percentage decline in crime and New York's crime rate dropped at twice the rate of the Lone Star State. By 2000, Texas' incarceration rate (1,035 per 100,000) was 80% higher than New York's (574 per 100,000), yet Texas' crime rate (5,111 per 100,000) was 30% higher than New York's (3,588 per 100,000).

The Justice Policy Institute is a Washington DC-based think tank dedicated to ending society's reliance on incarceration and promoting effective and just solutions to social problems. For more information on the research cited here, please contact JPI at (202-363-7847), or visit our website at

More prisoners, less crime

Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

MAJOR CRIME in the United States is at a 30-year low, and the Christian Science Monitor can't understand it.

In a story this week headlined "A drop in violent crime that's hard to explain," the Monitor's Alexandra Marks reported on the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Justice Department. According to the bureau, there were 23 million instances of violent crime and property crime last year -- 48 percent fewer than the 44 million recorded in 1973. (The numbers don't include murder, which is measured separately by the FBI.) In just the past 10 years, the violent-crime rate has plummeted by a stunning 54 percent, from 50 crimes per 1,000 U.S. residents in 1993 to 23 per 1,000 in 2002.

The plunge in serious crime is pervasive; it crosses racial, ethnic and gender lines and shows up in every income group and region. But welcome as they are, the new data are only the latest extension of a downward trend that first appeared in the 1980s, not long after the nationwide crackdown on crime. The dramatic drop in criminal activity followed an equally dramatic boom in prison construction and a sharp surge in incarceration rates. The conclusion is obvious: Stricter punishment has led to lower crime.

But it isn't obvious to the Monitor. Marks's story makes no mention of prisons or prisoners. It claims that criminologists are actually "quick to list the reasons" why crime should be going up, such as the soft economy, cuts in local government spending and the diversion of police from walking neighborhood beats to guarding public facilities against terrorism.

To be fair, Marks and the Monitor aren't the only ones with a blind spot for the nexis between crime and punishment. In the Associated Press story on the Justice Department data, there is no mention of incarceration until the 11th paragraph. "Some criminologists," the AP grudgingly notes, "say tougher prison sentences and more prisons are key factors."

None of those criminologists is quoted; instead, the point is dismissed in the AP story as "political rhetoric" by the Justice Policy Institute, an anti- imprisonment advocacy group.

No one disputes that more criminals are being locked up in this country or that they are spending more time behind bars. The Justice Department reported in July that the nation's prison population had reached an all-time high of 2. 1 million in 2002, with violent criminals accounting for most of the increase. At year's end, 1 of every 143 U.S. residents was in a state or federal prison or jail.

That is a much higher level of imprisonment than is found in other modern democracies, a fact liberal critics point to as evidence of American vengefulness. "The price of imprisoning so many Americans is too high . . . 5 to 10 times as high as in many other industrialized nations," admonished the New York Times in a recent editorial. "Locking the door and throwing away the key may make for good campaign sound bites, but it is a costly and inhumane crime policy."

Actually, keeping known criminals locked up is a sensible and effective crime policy. The Times laments that it costs $22,000 a year to keep each inmate in custody, without noting that is not an exorbitant price for preventing millions of murders, rapes, armed robberies and assaults. The cost to society of a single armed robbery has been estimated at more than $50,000, which makes that $22,000 per inmate look like quite a bargain.

While crime has been tumbling in the United States, it has been soaring elsewhere. "Crime has recently hit record highs in Paris, Madrid, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Toronto and a host of other major cities," Eli Lehrer wrote in the Weekly Standard last year. "In a 2001 study, the British Home Office found violent and property crime increased in the late 1990s in every wealthy country except the United States. American property crime rates have been lower than those in Britain, Canada and France since the early 1990s, and violent crime rates in the European Union, Australia and Canada have recently begun to equal and even surpass those in the United States. Even Sweden, once the epitome of cosmopolitan socialist prosperity, now has a crime victimization rate 20 percent higher than the United States."

Not every inmate belongs in prison. Petty drug offenders, for example, are better suited to intense probation and treatment than to jail. But on the whole, America's policy of locking up large numbers of criminals for long terms is doing just what it was meant to do: making us safer. Maybe the Europeans should follow suit.

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