Society and Culture

Keep locking ’em up

I got into a good-natured argument with my friend Pete Wehner of the Ethics and Public Policy Center over lunch last week about the importance of incarceration in explaining the gratifying drop in crime since the 1990s. Pete cited some credible technical analyses (summarized in John DiIulio’s fine overview on crime trends showing that increased incarceration accounts for only 10 to 35 percent of the reduction in crime), while I muttered that we would see how true that is if we freed a whole lot of violent criminals. Without pretending to refute the technical analyses, let me give a quick illustration why I think simple incapacitation—we’ve locked up a huge percentage of the really nasty guys—plus a substantial deterrent effect is a plausible explanation for why violent crime dropped at all.

I specify violent because I’m sure that much of the drop in property crime is explained by target hardening. It’s impossible to steal most new cars this day because there is no way to get the engine started without the key. Hot-wiring is futile. Try to burgle a home in a neighborhood where homes have much worth stealing, and you’d better be prepared to get in and out before the high-tech security system brings the cops. If you’re in a commercial area, you’ve got omnipresent surveillance cameras to worry about along with the security systems. The effect of these innovations on violent crime has been much spottier. Yes, it can be harder to rob a convenience store (robbery is classified as a violent crime), but for the most part, robbery, homicide, aggravated assault, and rape are not technically more difficult to commit than they used to be.

Here is a graph that shows the violent crime rate per 100,000 population and the number of prisoners per 1,000 violent offenses from 1960–2010:

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, FBI Uniform Crime Reports. “Prisoners” refers to inmates of state and federal prisons and does not include persons in jail.

The red line shows the shape of two trends: the risk of going to prison if you commit a violent crime and the proportion of all violent criminals who are behind bars at a given time (they are not the actual risks and proportions for various reasons, including the large number of persons in jail who are not included in the count of prisoners—748,728 in 2010). Here’s how I interpret those shapes:

When crime gets safer, crime goes up very quickly as a response. In the late 1950s, the “prison only makes people into smarter criminals”  school became dominant in criminal justice circles. By the early 1960s, imprisonment rates were plummeting. For that matter, even the raw number of prisoners fell. One consequence was that every cohort of young people saw acquaintances start to get probation for offenses that would have sent them to prison or reform school in the 1950s. I still remember my shock as a 17-year-old in that era when a friend of mine who shoplifted several thousand dollars of clothes from the store where he worked got probation. Once he had been arrested, it had not occurred to me that he wouldn’t go to reform school.

Pushing that toothpaste back into the tube takes a lot longer. Kids who are amazed when a friend gets away with a serious crime aren’t amazed when, say, 19 percent of their friends arrested for a serious crime are incarcerated instead of 15 percent. Understandably, crime continued to rise after imprisonment rates started to rise after 1974. Even in 1990, after 15 years of rising imprisonment rates, the risk of going to prison if you committed a violent crime was still far lower than it had been in 1960.

Cumulatively, however, two things happen. First, more and more of the “dirty 7 percent” of offenders who commit about 50 percent of all crime end up in prison. They cannot commit crimes, except against other criminals. Second, the cumulative impact of much higher imprisonment rates does make an impression—the idea that crime doesn’t pay is no longer completely a joke. For violent crime, the tipping point occurred in 1992, when imprisonment rates were heading straight up. By the time that the imprisonment rate for violent crime reached its 1960 level in 1998, the downward trendline was well established.

So how much of the reduction in violent crime was produced by increased incarceration? This kind of analysis doesn’t tell us. But neither am I sure that the armory of social science quantitative techniques adequately models what has gone on. Here is my simple-minded thought: Suppose we had maintained imprisonment for violent crime at the rate that applied in 1974. In that case, we would have had 276,769 state and federal prisoners in 2010 instead of the 1,518,104 we actually had. Suppose tomorrow we freed 1.2 million inmates from state and federal prisons. Do we really think violent crime would continue to drop at a somewhat slower pace?

In one sense, it is a silly question, as all counter-factuals must be. And I’m not saying that our current incarceration rates are appropriate. We may very well have been in a state of diminishing returns to incarceration for the last decade, as the experts DiIulio cites have argued. But I continue to harbor the belief that without the massive increases in incarceration after the mid 1970s, crime rates wouldn’t have turned around at all. Higher imprisonment was the necessary condition for 100 percent of the reduction in violent crime.

18 thoughts on “Keep locking ’em up

  1. There may be a test upcoming. It’s my understanding that California, because they are more than broke and their prisons are overcrowded, may be releasing a large number of prisoners soon. If that happens and continues for a while, your thesis may be tested.

  2. I can’t really speak to the anecdotal evidence that makes up most your argument, but doesn’t the graph actually suggest, if anything, an increase in violent crime associated with higher incarceration rates during the 80s and 90s? And even beyond that, you say that the red line represents “the risk of going to prison if you commit a violent crime,” but it plainly does not, since the red line treats all prisoners equally. How can it effectively measure risk of apprehension and incarceration without excluding things like non-violent drug offenses? If you’re trying to gauge the deterrence effect of increased punishment, wouldn’t a better approach be to graph incarceration rates for violent crime adjusted for changes in the closure rate?

  3. Britain has all the same security technologies (home alarms, CCTV, anti-theft devices on cars) but their property crime rate has increased significantly. They’re more lacks with prison terms. The new technologies only act as deterrents when married to real risk of imprisonment.

  4. This is a somewhat silly exercise you’re attempting. The rational violent criminal – which your whole theory is premised on – does not really exist. Even your own example involved shoplifting for financial gain – hardly a typical violent crime.

    People don’t sit around thinking “man I would really like to go rape some woman but my chance of getting caught these days is 60% instead of 30% so I won’t do it.”

    If violent criminals were rational percentage-players they wouldn’t BE violent criminals.

    • His point isn’t that the “rational violent criminal” decides not to commit the crime because his chance of getting caught has gone up. It’s that the violent criminals are more likely to be behind bars and not have the opportunity to commit more crimes. In short, it’s the repeat violent offenders have less opportunity to repeat…

  5. 40% of young people have been arrested or been jailed by the time they are 23 years old. yup, keep locking em up say the geniuses at aeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii. pathetic. how about arresting all of aei and wall strret lining them up and you know the rest….

  6. What constitutes a crime should be considered too. Many people are shocked that a woman who slaps her husband – has committed a violent crime – it’s called battery. It’s domestic violence.

    Given that we classify almost everything as a crime – when years ago people would ignore it – the dropping crime rate is good news indeed. As real violence decreases, our tolerance for remaining violence decreases along with it. In short, we may never be happy, but real violence is down, for certain.

  7. Charles,
    Thanks for you continuing great analysis. We need to look at the facts. We should be very circumspect when thinking about technical explanations — how good are they at prediction anyway?

  8. A theory that I have seen written about is that the increased amount of abortions after Roe. v. Wade was decided in 1973 led to a decrease in the amount of unwanted children born from 1974 on. And 18 years after Roe vs. Wade, when the aborted children would have been old enough to be charged in adult courts, the violent crime rate dropped like a rock. Note that the inflection point on that chart is almost exactly 18 years after the decision.
    I am not sure I like this idea, but it may have played a part in the drop in crime.

  9. Mr. Murray does not know how to read a chart. For one thing, if you look at the incarceration graph, the incarceration rate increases at a fairly steady rate from 1975 through 2010. The violent crime rate, in contrast, is all over the place, flattening out around 1992.

    But look at the incarceration rates again . . . violent crime rates appear flatten about a year BEFORE incarceration rates shoot up from a plateau in the early 90s. But what else was happening around this time? Community policing and an economic boom. How did those play out in the deterrent and “substitution” effects (i.e., people who are working at 3 pm are not burglarizing houses).

    Murray’s thesis, furthermore, is destroyed by what he leave out of his chart, namely the jail population. If individuals who were formerly receiving prison time are now receiving drug court and rehab, for example, that might account for more of the decrease in violent crime than dealers going to jail. We also do not know how welfare reform played into this picture, (the aforementioned substitution effect) or even the increased criminalization of domestic violence (e.g., the man arrested and jailed for beating his girlfriend might just dump her, such that he does not assault her again six months later . . . one violent assault occurs, not two). If you cherry pick the incarceration data, you cannot get a clear picture of the actual reasons the victimization rates are falling. But for people who think incarceration is the solution for every problem, this flawed reading of the chart will only reinforce a simplistic explanation.

  10. The chart is misleading because it the red line’s data is dependent on on the blue line’s data. In other words, even if we had the same number of people in prison every year, then as the blue line went down, we would expect the red line to go up, since the denominator in “prisoners per 1000 violent crimes” would be decreasing. Because that relationship is not made clear in the graph, the message is muddled. Your point would be better made if both lines used the same denominator.

    An incoherent graph like this is worse than useless, since it seems to imply something that may or may not be true. I expect better from you, Charles.

  11. Sorry, Chuck. You’re missing the simple answer:

    Page six, Figure 4. The median age tells all.

    Raping and beating your way through Central Park is a young man’s game. Just ask these guys:

    If prison was the answer, then high-trend incarceration states would see big drops in crime, while low-trend incarceration states wouldn’t. But that isn’t what happened. Crime dropped nationwide at a pretty even rate. (Actually, jurisdictions with the harshest policies are actually a little behind more moderate jurisdictions in crime reduction.)

    But hey, you’re an old man with a hard-baked set of opinions, and I dont’ expect to break through your “confirmation bias” with a single reply.

  12. Here’s a thought for Charles Murray to consider in his totally simplistic analysis. Most surveys indicate that at least 25% of all prisoners incarcerated are mentally ill. Ill enough to require treatment. They get none. Not even an aspirin. Our prison system has become the Dickensian Asylum controlled by violent gangs. Here’s another thought for Mr. Murray. A recent and comprehensive survey shows that defendants represented by Public Defenders receive significantly increased sentences way beyond those defended by private attorneys. So if Mr. Murray can explain to me how “keep locking them up” has anything to do with a rational justice system or is even remotely related to crime’s committed by the mentally ill or even a drop in crime, I’d be more then happy to listen to the argument. But the attitude of try ‘em and then hang ‘em seems a bit too 1870s for me.

  13. Much of our sentencing is irrational, today.

    Recently in my city, an individual was arrested for beating his girlfriend and killing her pet dog’s recent litter of 6 puppies. It’s not crime of the century, but it was violent and it was just the latest in a string of violent offenses by the individual over the past decade. He had previously been charged with misdemeanors and felonies, most of them violent, one of them sexual in nature and alleged to have been committed against a child. Each had resulted initially in probation, which seems to have ended in violations of parole in each instance, followed only then by minimal time in county jail. He has never been to prison. He is not listed as a sexual offender or predator. I don’t think he’s ever gone to trial for anything.

    On the other side of the coin, we have a woman in our city who fired a warning shot during a domestic argument. She did not shoot another person nor did she attempt to. All involved seem to agree that she fired a shot in order to demonstrate her willingness to use deadly force. She has been sentenced, under mandatory sentencing laws at the state level, to 20 years in prison. She shot no one and she will serve two decades in a prison.

    I have a relative who ministers and counsels prisoners. He speaks with men who have been convicted of attempted murder and are serving less than 6 years in prison.

    There is certainly a crime problem in the United States, most particularly in certain geographical areas. However, there is also a justice problem in the United States. Justice does not equate to randomly dispensed sentences. When I combine my amazement at the Alice in Wonderland system of sentencing in our country with issues such as the militarization of the police, the criminalization of mistakes, and the questionable tactics of prosecutors in high profile cases, I lose what little confidence I had in police or the courts. Law and order is one of the primary responsibilities of the state and regardless of the optimism that I suppose I should feel from blue line in your line chart, I have a very strong feeling of unease and distrust with regard to people and agencies who are supposed to be providing that law and order.

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