Does Sending People to Jail Lower Crime Rates?

(Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

What’s one way to rid our communities of crime? Though traditionally jail has been the most popular way to deter bad behavior, locking people up may not be the answer.

That’s the conclusion that The Pew Charitable Trusts reached by crunching the numbers from each state, looking at both the incarceration rate and the relative effect on the crime rate between 1994 and 2012. Pew’s data found that since Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, crime has declined a total of 40% and incarceration rates have gone up 24%. But the really juicy finding is that several states were able to reduce both at the same time.

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

From the chart above, we can see the states in which the effect was the most audible. New York, for example, lowered its imprisonment rate by 24% over the past two decades, and still saw the crime rate reduced by more than half. New Jersey, whose numbers aren’t quite as great as New York’s, had similar success. In fact, crime dropped an average of 45% among the top five states who saw a decline in the imprisonment rate.

One important thing to take note of is that the imprisonment rate does not include local jail populations; it only takes federal prison populations into account. Even taking that into account, the findings are surprising.

On the other side of the coin, the states that increased their imprisonment populations the most saw their crime rates drop, although by a much lower percentage of 27%.

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

Source: Pew Charitable Trusts

Probably the most interesting statistical nugget on the entire list is that West Virginia managed to nearly tripled its imprisonment rate, and still see a 6% increase in crime. Likewise, Oregon doubled its imprisonment rate, and saw crime drop 45%.

To really put things in perspective, Pew notes that two states that took drastically different approaches: New York, which lowered its imprisonment rate by 24% and Florida, which raised theirs by 31% — both saw a 54% decrease in crime. Also, both Connecticut and Idaho lowered their crime rates by roughly the same amount, but Idaho doubled its imprisonment rate while Connecticut only boosted its by 5%.

It’s proof that there is definitely more than one way to attack the problem, and that simply locking people up won’t necessarily solve any problems. From a political standpoint, these findings can mean a lot of things. From a liberal perspective, it’s definitely a good thing to see less people going to jail in certain states, without any negative consequences to the overall crime rate in these states. Conservatives can be happy with the findings as well, as lower imprisonment rates also means less expenditures by the government, all the while without the unwanted consequences of crime spiking.

For some, this is the ideal scenario; take the government — through policing and incarceration — out of the picture, and the problem seems to be solving itself. “Despite the conventional wisdom, states are showing that it is possible to cut incarceration rates without comprising public safety,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, according to The Spokesman Review. “The crime bill paid billions for new prisons but with nearly 1 in 100 American adults behind bars, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns,” he added. “There’s now broad bipartisan consensus behind alternatives for lower-level offenders that cost less and do a better job cutting recidivism.”

If there’s one thing to take away from the findings, it’s that simply throwing money at the problem isn’t solving anything. Essentially, what many states have done is reduce crime by reducing costs.

If we’re finding proof that we can both reduce crime and reduce costs simultaneously, it could spell trouble for one of America’s most infamous and profitable businesses: the private prison industry.

Private prisons have been around for decades now, and have managed to attain and keep their foothold in America through intense lobbying efforts and persuasive arguments to legislators. Basically, private prison companies make the argument that they can run criminal justice programs for states at a much lower cost to the taxpayers than the states themselves, a classic case of pitting the private sector versus the public sector.

While these companies, which now rake in billions of dollars in revenues, may be able to run prisons effectively in terms of dollars and cents, they’re still in the business of using human beings as a commodity. With all the controversy surrounding companies like Corrections Corporation of America, one of the country’s largest private prison companies, maybe it’s time to rethink our approach to criminal justice altogether.

The main talking point of the private prison industry’s lobbying efforts has been that by lowering the bill on taxpayers, these companies can take on more prisoners for less — thereby having more impact on crime. But if cutting spending also has the same effect on the crime rate, then why bother paying these companies more and more every year for no tangible benefit to society?

That’s an issue the industry’s lobbying teams will need to find a way to spin. Of course, old attitudes may still prevail in the face of hard data, as Corrections Corporation of America has spent $17.4 million in lobbying efforts between 2002 and 2012, and made $1.9 million in political contributions between 2003 and 2012, according to figures compiled by ProPublica.

And as we know, money talks.

However, if Pew’s research remains sound and the trend continues into the future, federal budgets concerning the criminal justice system may become a target for downsizing. Considering the current political climate, where a good portion of our lawmakers are focused on cutting as much in expenditures as possible, an area that has actually shown demonstrable improvement without the need for additional funding would likely be on top of the list.

It may be a rare win-win case.

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