A relatively low national crime rate combined with a government fiscal crisis could provide an opportunity for a left-right coalition to reduce incarceration in the United States, says criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University. Speaking to the annual forum of the National Criminal Justice Association, which is ending today in Fort Myers, Fla., Blumstein said the political right’s concern about the high costs of prisons and the left’s criticism of the nation’s “punitiveness” could produce some kind of agreement on more-rational sentencing policies.
Blumstein said that many “excessively long sentences” imposed in recent decades, especially in drug cases, have wasted tax money. He said incarcerating drug traffickers could be counterproductive if their replacements in the drug market proved to be even worse criminals. Noting that national crime rates now have dropped to the level of the 1960s, the start of the modern-day crime boom in the nation, Blumstein said it is not yet clear whether crime has bottomed out or can go much lower. He questioned whether the decreases for 2009 in crime reports compiled by the FBI are a “blip or a new turning point.” Also at yesterday’s conference, former Florida corrections chief James McDonough called for spending more money on inmate rehabilitation and less on prison building. He said stepping up substance abuse treatment for prisoners could have a “major impact on recidivism.”