Look south

Conservative backbencher Brent Rathgeber looks to the United States, seemingly to explain his government’s approach to crime.

answer to Mark Holland’s challenge to name a “single jurisdiction where higher rates of incarceration led to a lower crime rate”-easy–USA.

from 1988 to 2008, fed and state prisoner pop from 1M to 2.3M–violent crime cut in 1/2 and overall crime rate down 25% (NY Times 2/3/2009).

That drop in the crime rate is noted in a New York Times piece from March 2, 2009—a piece based on a Pew Center study that raised concerns about the fact that correctional spending in the United States was “outpacing budget growth in education, transportation and public assistance.”

Of course, it is difficult to draw a direct line between the incarceration rate and the crime rate (see this chat with Pew’s Susan K. Urahn and her comparison of Florida and New York). Were it so easy, one might imagine that the United States, with the highest incarceration rate in the world, would now be the most peaceful.

When the Economist looked at the American justice system last year, it noted some of the research and thinking in this regard.

Some people argue that the system works: that crime has fallen in the past two decades because the bad guys are either in prison or scared of being sent there. Caged thugs cannot break into your home. Bernie Madoff’s 150-year sentence for running a Ponzi scam should deter imitators. And indeed the crime rate continues to drop, despite the recession, as Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, an advocacy group, points out. This, he says, is because habitual criminals face serious consequences. Some research supports him: after raking through decades of historical data, John Donohue of Yale Law School estimates that a 10% increase in imprisonment brings a 2% reduction in crime.

Others disagree. Using more recent data, Bert Useem of Purdue University and Anne Piehl of Rutgers University estimate that a 10% increase in the number of people behind bars would reduce crime by only 0.5%. In the states that currently lock up the most people, imprisoning more would actually increase crime, they believe. Some inmates emerge from prison as more accomplished criminals. And raising the incarceration rate means locking up people who are, on average, less dangerous than the ones already behind bars.


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