Still Up For Debate: Will Reducing Inmate Numbers Raise Crime Rate?


Despite efforts to hold down the U.S. prison population, it hasn’t decreased much–6 percent from its high point, in 2009, says NPR. Experts thought it would drop even more, given the scale of initiatives by states and the federal government. Much of the decline in the prison population since 2011 can be attributed to California, which was ordered by federal courts to relieve overcrowding in state prisons. Voters there have also shown a new interest in incarceration changes, approving moves to lighten sentencing. Los Angeles police detective Bill Blount says, “There has definitely been an uptick in burglary and theft from motor vehicle.” He says car prowls are up about 30 percent in his area — and he thinks it’s partly because more drug users are staying out of jail now. “That person needs to support his habit,” he says. “It’s kind of like a spider-web effect, where you have the drug user in the middle, and then this person is responsible for a multitude of other things.”

Prosecutor Eric Siddall of Compton says, “I don’t think these current reforms are helping at all.” Steven Raphael, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, says, “What drove the [imprisonment] increase over the last three decades was sort of a series of sentencing reforms that were just kind of layered on top of each other, decade after decade, especially during the ’80s and ’90s. And I don’t know that there was really much attention being paid to the effectiveness of this particular tool.” He says it’s clear that the tougher sentences did work at first. When the U.S. first started putting away more people, crime went down. But the effect didn’t last. A fairly strong body of research suggests that as the incarceration rate goes up, the effectiveness of incarceration as a crime-control tool goes down.

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