Crime experts Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University and James Q. Wilson of Pepperdine University discussed the relationship betweeen incarceration and crime rates with the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project. Blumstein believes the growth of incarceration “has resulted in far less selectivity regarding who is sent to prison, and research has shown that greater selectivity in incarceration should have the highest yield in crimes averted per prisoner.” Wilson says that in much of Europe, political leaders rejected the use of prison, and as a result the rate of many crimes rose when U.S. crime rates were falling. In the U.S., Wilson said, about one million felons are on probation. He believes more intensive community supervision might reduce drug use and minor offenses in this group, but there is not much evidence it would reduce serious crimes.
Wilson said prison is only one factor affecting crime; others include the number and tactics of police, changes in gangs and drug dealing, an increase in the proportion of the population that is older, and other factors having to do with self-protection and cultural shifts. Blumstein cited “the looseness of the connection between prison population and crime,” especially over a period when the dynamics of crack markets was a major factor in violent crime. Says Wilson: “It is too easy to make up a list of all of the things that are true of American society and then attribute changes in the crime rate to them. We worry that poorly schooled people have trouble finding jobs, but in fact the unemployment rate has only a small effect on the crime rate. What probably has a larger effect is the fact that many young people are not in the labor market at all, and this may well be a result of the high rate of single-parent families that fail to supply boys with a resident father who takes work seriously. Wilson believes drug abuse could be cut by frequently testing probationers and backing up the tests with immediate but brief stays in jail. Says Blumstein: “Clearly, rethinking the entire ‘drug war’ to find better ways to reduce the harm resulting from both drug abuse and drug-law enforcement is necessary. More broadly, it would be most desirable to re-think and repeal a wide variety of the legislative innovations that were created to increase incarceration without thinking of their cost effectiveness.”