New Forecasting Method Shows Inmate Release Won’t Increase Crime, Experts Say

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Photo by J. Chan via Flickr

Some policymakers long have maintained that there is a major connection between the nation’s crime rates and imprisonment totals.

Advocates of long prison terms say that the more people who are behind bars, the lower the crime rate will be. They point to a rise in prisoner counts that started in the 1980s, and was followed by a crime decrease beginning in the mid-1990s.

Critics of that theory maintain that the link is minimal. They note that as more offenders are incarcerated, new ones take their places and that crime levels are driven by many forces.

The debate has generated competing narratives over trends of the last few decades, with conservatives saying that the nation’s mass incarceration is largely responsible for crime’s overall decline since the early 1990s, while studies like this one from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University find that many states have cut crime and incarceration at the same.

Richard Rosenfeld

Richard Rosenfeld

Wth the argument seemingly never settled, criminologists James Austin and Richard Rosenfeld  believe they have devised a way to predict crime rates independently of relying on prison numbers.

In their view, the prisoner count in the U.S. can be reduced markedly with little fear of a rise in crime.

Rosenfeld, of the University of Missouri St. Louis, and Austin, a consultant on corrections issues, presented their findings last week at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, which concluded on Saturday. Their study was funded by the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

A close look at the rise and fall of crime rates in recent decades indicates that several factors other than imprisonment rates generally track crime’s ups and downs, Rosenfeld says.

These include the population of 18-to-24-year olds and the rates of teen births and divorces.

Using these and other measures, including the numbers of people on probation and parole, Rosenfeld and Austin project that violent crime rates in the U.S. should remain flat for the next few years.

Using the same methodology, property crime totals may rise a bit before resuming their downward trend of the last few years.

The criminologists admit that their forecasts could prove unreliable if extraordinary events occur.

One example is the national homicide rise in 2015 and 2016, which was unexpected by many after a general decline in the preceding years.

Some experts theorize that the downward trend was disrupted by widespread protests over the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in the summer 2014, and the death of Freddie Gray in a Baltimore police van in the spring of 2015.

Anecdotal reports suggested that many police officers in urban areas became less aggressive amid criticism, signalling to criminals that they could act with impunity. A study published this year found no evidence that “de-policing” was responsible for the homicide spike.

Since 2016, national violent crime trends have remained fairly stable, which Austin and Rosenfeld believe will continue.

Release More Prisoners

Austin, who is an advocate for a major reduction in the number of inmates around the U.S., believes that if his analysis with Rosenfeld can be refined and circulated to key state policymakers, they could be convinced that more prisoners could be freed without endangering public safety.

James Austin

“We must have science show that incarceration is not driving crime rates,” Austin told the criminology society about his study with Rosenfeld.

Austin admits that the field of criminology cannot boast an accurate record of forecasting major trends of the last half-century. He cited “two big misses:” the failure to predict both the major rise in national crime rates in the 1960s and the decline after rates peaked in the early 1990s.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

One thought on “New Forecasting Method Shows Inmate Release Won’t Increase Crime, Experts Say

  1. Criminology and sociology are two fields where theories are essentially guesses. There are studies and observations in the field but the idea believing people with a history of drug addiction and a lack of moral structure to be released and expect them to be changed is just silly. Certainly some do but the bureau of justice statistics clearly dispute that opinion. I have more than 40 years in law enforcement working in and operating a jail for more than 20 years. They come. They go and they generally come back.
    Our failing and the failure to provide both practical training, intensive addiction treatment and serious efforts to address moral weaknesses set us up for failure.

    One example I saw constantly was smoking. People in custody for months and even years that were smokers confined in a smoke free jail you would think they could have kicked the habit. Without fail their first statement is I need a cigarette. They received no treatment and still considered themselves a smoker. If you cannot overcome tobacco how can you overcome more powerful addictions? People start using powerful drugs knowing they are incredibly bad for you. Why?? Jails and prisons are like sewage and garbage services. No one wants to deal with it or spend more than the minimum amount of money on it. Just deciding they are changed is a false hope in my opinion. Systematic efforts backed by real efforts are the only way to begin. The majority of efforts to “fix” problems very rarely include professionals that have the practical understanding of reality.

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