a bird and a bottle

Turns out, Incarceration May Not Deter Crime
February 4, 2007, 11:52 am
Filed under: criminal justice, law

This one from the “I thought so but needed some data to back it up” department.

A recent study, reported by Joel Waldfogel at Slate, shows that putting people in prison does not deter crime. Though people have long questioned the effectiveness of prison as a deterrent to crime, it’s been hard to prove through numbers. The researchers at the University of Michigan and Columbia seem to have figured out a way around these research obstacles:

The economists noted that when kids turn 18, they suddenly face much stiffer adult sanctions. Then they got access to data on all felony arrests in Florida between 1989 and 2002. Each arrest links to an individual, whose birth date is included in the data. This allowed the researchers to create an arrest history for each person arrested and to measure the effect of turning 18, and thus facing longer prison terms, on criminal activity.

In Florida during the years in question, Lee and McCrary found, the probability of being sentenced to prison for an offense jumped from 3 percent to 17 percent at exactly age 18. This tees up the answer to the economists’ main question: How does the tendency to commit crimes vary around the 18th birthday, when the odds of a prison-sentence punishment jump? The answer is, hardly at all. While the probability of being arrested each week falls steadily from age 17 to age 19, there is no sizeable decrease in the arrest rate that corresponds to the bump up to an adult penalty in the weeks before and after people turn 18. To an economist, this is odd. At the grocery store, in weeks that Coke is on sale and Pepsi is not, consumers respond immediately. Coke sells out while Pepsi languishes on the shelf.

But prison might still have some effect on crime rates, simply because it cages people.

If the prospect of longer prison sentences does not deter young Floridians from committing crimes, prison still prevents some crime via the more mundane channel of locking them up—incapacitating rather than deterring them, in the lingo of criminal justice theory. Lee and McCrary see this in the re-arrest data they study. One-fifth of the people arrested the week before their 18th birthday were rearrested within a month. By contrast, only a tenth of the people arrested a week after their 18th birthday were rearrested within the same time period. The reason? The 18-year-old offenders spent more of the month behind bars (because they received longer sentences, on average) and therefore were not free to commit the crimes that would have gotten them re-arrested.

So what are we to make of all this? My inclination is to say we need to be addressing the root causes of crime and the problems created by a lack of re-entry support when people are released from prison — and how those two issues might compound each other. What I mean is this: crime is highest in low-income communities where people perceive few ways up and out of poverty and few opporunities for education. When people are released from prison, they come right back into these low hope worlds. And now, not only are they without mobility in the same way as before, but they’re also now faced with the difficult task of finding a job with a conviction on their records. And because of the cuts to Pell Grants that brought higher education into prisons, former inmates have no new skills with which they could find a way out of poverty and crime.

So while a conservative response would just be increased sentences to incapacitate people for longer to lower crime, mine is this: educate people and create economic opportunity (narrowing the rich-poor divide in the US), and crime will drop. Make welfare benefits match the need, and crime will drop. Make crime less attractive not through threats but through opening up another path, anad crime will drop. Oh yeah, and an end to the War on Drugs. Throwing low-level users in jail does nothing to protect communities and may even make them worse by breaking up functioning families and magnifying the problems people face post-release.

How much longer will we continue to do something that doesn’t work, simply because it’s what we’ve always done?

(hat tip: KMZ)


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Deep down, I kind of think that people with lots of power truly believe that black people and spanish speaking people and poor people are bad and deserve to be punished for being bad. How do we get to a place where these people believe in the possibility that these “others” could do good things, be productive and healthy people — and recognize the value in that?

Also — did you see in the nyt – front page of the styles section was about food bloggers. I wanna know when they start covering feminist food bloggers, now that’ll be a headline.

Comment by milbydaniel

what worries me in your excellent post is that the study and your response largely parallel the evolution toward longer prison sentences over the past forty years: prisons do not reduce recidivism so don’t give “them” a second chance.
I think that the liberal response you espouse is praiseworthy and I support it; but it has been decades since politicians or even the general public has been receptive to these proposals – largely because those policies have never proven strong enough to counteract the degree to which prison itself enables and even encourages recidivism (i.e. there’s no better place to learn crime than in jail). I think we need to find other arguments against the lock ’em policy – though, alas, I am short on ideas.

Comment by professorplum

also, i strongly agree with milbydaniel’s comment. i think (middle-class, white) americans are comforted to think that the failures do not lie in the american system, but in a whole class of “others” – poor non-whites. locking “them” away where “we” don’t have to see “their” failure is a way not to address the biases endemic to the system.

Comment by professorplum

prof plum, I totally sgree that we need to find alternatives to lock ’em up policies, and I have tried to suggest some in piece that limit the need for prisons (sounds analogous to abortion rights rhetoric where we say we should reduce the need through emergency contraception). But I think you’re also right that we still need an alternative for when people are convicted of crimes (legit crimes, not low level drug crimes which shouldn’t lead to incarceration anyway). I’m not sure what the response should be either, but maybe looking internationally is a good way to start? Many other countries are as safe if not safer than the U.S. and have much lower rates of incarceration not only in absolute numbers but also per capita – and not just because fewer people commit crimes.

Comment by bean

Very Good discussions, I can appreciate the problems causing wrong behavior, or programs helping to prevent a downfall in ones life, or with working your way back into a productive lifestyle after an incarceration. Regrettably, I too fall into this situation. Convicted of a CSC2 charge (a 30 year max sentence), I was fortunate to only receive 18 months probation, released after 15 months.

An environment that society needs to create is structured opportunity that allows many people working together to achieve success and improve their lifestyles.

There are many organization’s which help troubled individuals to cope with their particular behavioral problem (AA, Smokers support groups, grieving support groups, etc…), you get the idea. These groups have proven to be very beneficial and necessary to people.

The synergy developed among participants become very productive and useful to each of them. Taking the group synergy principal into consideration, we can bolster the opportunities necessary to achieve success. I believe we can provide a positive environment that would give, prevent and or provide those with fallen lives, a greater chance to become productive.

I recently joined just such an organization. Whether they realize it or not, it has the potential to have such an impact on its community of people. There is Hope in this and I find it interesting that I can improve all aspects of my life as well as my family’s.

There is no prejudging of anyone, there are no biases, and there are no restrictions other than being 18 years old. I see people who seem to be right out of high school, who are elderly, on crutches, in wheel chairs, blind, of any race, any religion, of any class (poor or wealthy), any profession… When one of their individuals or couples achieves greater success, they are praised and recognized. Even from those whom they surpass.

The organization began in 1998 is growing across the nation and is now in three other countries. It is called TEAM. If you are ever approached by some one representing this organization take the time to listen, learn and understand what is involved and how with change, you can achieve a lifestyle to your satisfaction.

Your last question asked: How much longer will we continue to do something that doesn’t work, simply because it’s what we’ve always done?

The old saying that says: “There are only two things that are true in this world, change and death” is the answer…

Death is inevitable, Change is constant… Find the changes that hold true and ride the trend… Find you’re Hope… Have a vision to pursue or a dream to achieve… Be guided by those who have gone before you…

Comment by Ron

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