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.
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.
“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.