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Reds and Blues Lead Mass Prison Break


For the third year in a row, incarceration rates are dropping nationwide amid an unprecedented shift in criminal justice policy. NYT:

The number of inmates in state and federal prisons decreased by 1.7 percent, to an estimated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department. Although the percentage decline appeared small, the fact that it followed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers persuasive evidence of what some experts say is a “sea change” in America’s approach to criminal punishment.

The Times lists some reasons for this change: “tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, changes in sentencing laws and shifts in public opinion.” The interesting thing about that second factor—dropping crime rates—is that its not an exclusively American phenomenon: despite the global recession, it’s happening throughout the whole West.

The Economist explores some reasons why crime rates could be dropping internationally, and finds no easy answers. Putting more police on the street and the mass increase in incarceration have helped, but the recently reduced prison population hasn’t coincided with a return to the crime waves of earlier decades. The article highlights one under-discussed reason in particular:

The last category of explanations is perhaps the most intriguing: that criminals simply have fewer opportunities. Jan van Dijk, a criminologist based at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, points out that in the 1950s and 1960s millions of people across the Western world acquired cars, televisions, record players, jewellery and so on for the first time; rich pickings for those who would steal them. In the decades since, those same people have added burglar alarms, window locks and safe deposit boxes. Between 1995 and 2011, the proportion of British households with burglar alarms increased by half, to 29%. And some things once worth stealing from people’s homes have become less valuable. There is little point in burgling a house to steal a DVD player worth $30.

Whatever the reasons, the fact that crime rates have fallen and are remaining low means that scaling back mass incarceration to some degree is now both a rational and humane policy. Via Media is glad to see that, as the NYT notes, on both the federal and state levels prison reform has become a bipartisan and de-politicized issue. Both blue and red states have taken it on, though red states have seen some of the most substantial reductions.

It’s a reminder that pols across parties are still able to work on commonsense reforms when the conditions underlying the original policy change.

[2010 photo of CA inmates sharing bunk-beds in a gymnasium repurposed for their incarceration. Photo courtesy Getty Images.]

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  • Andrew Allison

    Re: “The last category of explanations is perhaps the most intriguing: that criminals simply have fewer opportunities”.

    That is an extraordinarily facile suggestion. It assumes that petty criminals are smart enough to figure out that it’s not worth the risk. If they were, why were they in jail?

    A more likely explanation might be that the high level of public surveillance in Europe is indeed deterring crime, and that budget constraints in the US are encouraging the release of perpetrators of victimless crimes. The number of people incarcerated for simple possession of marijuana, for example, is a national disgrace. Logic and health and public safety statistics clearly demonstrate that the penalties for possession of tobacco products or alcohol should be the same as those for marijuana. Let’s not even get into the rampant abuse of prescription medications. Unhappily, our country learned absolutely nothing from the enactment of Prohibition in 1920, and the mushrooming criminal enterprises which resulted.

  • Eric J.

    What about demographics? Aging population=fewer young men who are most likely to commit crimes.

  • Nick Bidler

    I would say that rather than ‘fewer crimes,’ there are infinitely more crimes that are untraceable, cheaper, and involve less risk.

    Piracy is a serious crime, but I think it should be penalized according to the price of object ‘stolen.’ As the law stands now, ‘shoplifters’ who download songs without paying are treated as foreign spies conducting corporate espionage.

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