According to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice, it is still hard to pinpoint the most substantial cause of crime reduction in the last two decades. Based on researchers’ findings, however, we do know what wasn’t responsible: mass incarceration.
Over a 23-year period, 1990–2013, the country’s overall crime rate plummeted, but incarceration accounted for less than 10 percent of the drop. Between 1990–1999, violent crimes such as murder, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and non-negligent manslaughter dropped 28 percent, as the incarceration rate skyrocketed by 60 percent. In the subsequent 13 years, violent crime dropped another 27 percent, but the incarceration rate rose by a mere 1 percent. When compared to 11 other factors like income growth, more policing, and less alcohol consumption, incarceration only impacted 7 percent of the lower crime rate in the 1990s. That tiny percentage dropped down to one during the later years examined by the report.
When researchers narrowed in on states with the largest prison populations, they also found that incarceration had a minimal effect on reduced criminal activity. For instance, the number of California’s inmates jumped 24,569 in 1980 to 132,523 in 1997, although a higher incarceration rate had almost no impression on the state’s crime rate. By 2013, there were 122,800 prisoners in California, and the incarceration had zero effect on crime.
On the flip side, Michigan, Nevada, Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, and the Carolinas reduced their prison populations by 2–15 percent, as their crime rates fell 15 percent.
Due to these findings, Brennan concluded that the use of the prison system has simply plateaued. “Incarceration in the U.S. has reached a level where it no longer provides a meaningful crime reduction benefit.” In other words, more incarceration does not guarantee less crime, so the onus of criminal justice reform should explore alternative methods to a counterproductive system of imprisonment.
As of February 5, the federal prison population remains slightly above 210,315, while the total prison and jail population hovers around 2.3 million — the largest of any country in the world. On average, taxpayers pay $31,286 per inmate, a trend that’s criticized on both sides of the aisle.
Indeed, the report comes at a time when criminal justice reform is at the forefront of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers’ minds. Last year, two unlikely allies, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), co-authored the REDEEM Act to give low-level offenders a better chance of successfully reentering society after completing a prison sentence. The act would seal non-violent criminal records, limit solitary confinement for juveniles, and increase the age of juveniles who enter the adult prison and court system. On Tuesday, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I), introduced the Corrections Act, to reduce recidivism. Under the proposed legislation, low-level offenders would have the chance to reduce their sentences by participating in recidivism reduction programs.
But if the Brennan Center’s report is any indication, lawmakers’ priorities may need to shift to crime prevention strategies, to keep offenders from entering the prison system in the first place.