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The National Research Council Tells Us to Reduce Incarceration Rates May 1, 2014

Posted by geoff in News.

“Incarceration doesn’t reduce crime (significantly)” is a cyclic liberal mantra that emerges every 5 or 10 years as they try to convince us that good old fashioned “lock ’em up” approaches are antiquated and ineffectual. This week we get to hear from the National Research Council and their voluminous report

The report, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation, assess nearly every facet of America’s “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” rise in incarceration since the 1970s. It synthesizes years of evidence on crime trends, on causes driving the growth in prisons, and on the consequences of all this imprisonment. It argues that the U.S. should revise its current criminal justice policies — including sentencing laws and drug enforcement — to significantly cut prison rates and scale back what’s become the world’s most punitive culture.

Having said that, they then show you this chart:


Boy howdy, it sure looks like as more offenders are imprisoned (green line), crime tapers off and then falls. And when the increase in incarceration rate stops, improvement in homicide and burglary rates stops (I suspect new technology is why motor vehicle thefts continue to drop). It must have pained the WaPo author to include that chart in her article.

I think we’d all agree that correlation doesn’t equal causation, but that’s is one of the clearest correlations you’re likely to find in this data. [Gun ownership would be another one.] The WaPo author tries, very weakly, to refute that correlation:

Since the 1990s, crime has generally fallen, but this does not necessarily mean that crime fell because of increases in incarceration. A number of other changes in society — and in policing tactics — have taken place over the same time.

The increase in incarceration may have caused a decrease in crime, but most studies suggest that this effect is small or uncertain. If strict prison policies are meant to be a deterrent to repeat offenders, there’s also little evidence in the literature that the experience of being in prison discourages people from re-offending.

Let me just say this about that. Something we’re doing is obviously working. Why mess with it?

This is not to say that we should ignore the root causes of crime or rehabilitation of criminals so that they can reenter society. But I don’t think you should start paring back incarceration rates when progress on those fronts is very iffy, and when we have data like this staring us in the face.

If you want to try to add something like rehabilitation programs to the mix, fine. But don’t change what ain’t broke.


1. Nanny G - May 2, 2014

The only good thing about CA was its 3 strikes law.
It really helped get career criminals off the streets.
The smart career criminals left CA.
The stupid ones got caught enough to do the 25 years.

In CA, getting caught only happens maybe one out of every ten crimes.
Getting prosecuted only one out of every forty arrests.
Getting found guilty maybe one out of thirty cases.
Getting sent behind bars only one out of ten convictions.
So, we already have a pretty low incarceration rate considering the amount of crime on the streets.

2. bydesign001 - May 3, 2014

Reblogged this on PUMABydesign001's Blog and commented:
Facts are stubborn things but don’t tell that to a Progressive.

3. KlingonsRule - August 26, 2018

Are we looking at the same chart? Incarceration rate and ALL of the crimes are increasing from around ’75 until around ’81 (for about six years). Not exactly an inverse relationship. Then it really takes off in about ’81, and we do see a drop in crimes across the board – but from around ’84 they all start to increase again, and until around ’91-’93 only burglaries are decreasing, while the incarceration rate is skyrocketing.

There are far more factors at play here, clearly.

4. geoff - August 26, 2018

Did you read the post? The point is that nothing in the chart says that increasing incarceration rates doesn’t reduce crime, not that incarceration is the only factor that reduces crime. I made the point a couple of times in the post that other factors are at play.

Incarceration rate and ALL of the crimes are increasing from around ’75 until around ’81 (for about six years).

? Are we looking at the same chart? From ’75 to ’81, all three crime curves are essentially flat. Also, you’re reading the fluctuations too closely – the only useful information in the curves comes from the 10-20 year time scales.

As to the lack of a perfect monotonic relationship between incarceration and crime, I think you could make a strong statistical case for a threshold effect, i.e., increasing incarceration rates has a small effect on crime until incarceration becomes relatively common (“justice is swift and sure”), when it really starts to inhibit crime.

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