"Raise the Crime Rate"

I read this a couple of months ago, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. It’s definitely one of the most thought-provoking essays I’ve read this year.

According to government statistics, Americans are safer today than at any time in the last forty years. In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides in New York City. In 2010, there were 536, only 123 of which involved people who didn’t already know each other. The fear, once common, that walking around city parks late at night could get you mugged or murdered has been relegated to grandmothers; random murders, with few exceptions, simply don’t happen anymore.

When it comes to rape, the numbers look even better: from 1980 to 2005, the estimated number of sexual assaults in the US fell by 85 percent. Scholars attribute this stunning collapse to various factors, including advances in gender equality, the abortion of unwanted children, and the spread of internet pornography.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the country was more dangerous in 1990, at the height of the crack epidemic, than in 2006, at the height of the real estate bubble. What’s strange is that crime has continued to fall during the recession. On May 23, in what has become an annual ritual, the New York Times celebrated the latest such finding: in 2010, as America’s army of unemployed grew to 14 million, violent crime fell for the fourth year in a row, sinking to a level not seen since the early ’70s. This seemed odd. Crime and unemployment were supposed to rise in tandem­progressives have been harping on this point for centuries. Where had all the criminals gone?

Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.

Crime has not fallen in the United States—it’s been shifted. Just as Wall Street connived with regulators to transfer financial risk from spendthrift banks to careless home buyers, so have federal, state, and local legislatures succeeded in rerouting criminal risk away from urban centers and concentrating it in a proliferating web of hyperhells. The statistics touting the country’s crime-reduction miracle, when juxtaposed with those documenting the quantity of rape and assault that takes place each year within the correctional system, are exposed as not merely a lie, or even a damn lie—but as the single most shameful lie in American life.

The author argues that the only moral thing for the U.S. to do is to accept a slight rise in the crime rate while vastly reducing the number of people incarcerated.

While I might not agree with his conclusion—as I said above, I’m not sure whether I do or I don’t—it’s very much the sort of trade-off I talk about in Liars and Outliers. And Steven Pinker has an extensive argument about violent crime in modern society that he makes in The Better Angels of our Nature.

Posted on April 11, 2012 at 1:25 PM66 Comments


Petréa Mitchell April 11, 2012 1:41 PM

What I think is there’s a problem with the premise: crime rates are falling even in places where fewer people are being locked up. So it’s not clear that there even is a tradeoff.

Griff April 11, 2012 1:47 PM

Perhaps the lower crime rate has to do with the increases in forensic investigation? Granted shows like CSI and Bones are just that, TV shows, but I’m sure there’s some truths behind what they portray on the show when it comes to the science and forensics.

With the advent of massive fingerprint and DNA databases, it’s probably much more difficult to get away with violent crimes. It’s possible that fear of getting caught is a deterrent to those that would commit them.

Will April 11, 2012 1:48 PM

How about legalizing some of the more tame drugs, the ones that generally result in those on them to become docile (so, you know, not cocaine and PCP)? That would both reduce the prison population (by not incarcerating more people found with a dime bag of weed in the glove box), and I’d imagine keep the crime rate relatively low. Folks high on dope just want snacks, not confrontations. And if it’s legal, there’s anecdotal evidence that the price will drop, lowering pressure to commit crimes to get drugs. Win-win? No?

n April 11, 2012 1:56 PM

I feel awful for non-violent prisoners who are subjected to the cruel and unusual hell that is our prison system. However, if locking up violent criminals makes violent crime fall for everyone else, let’s continue that practice.

Jeff April 11, 2012 2:00 PM

You know though. I remember reading another interesting story about why the crime rates dropped which has an interesting correlation crime rise in Romania. I am not trying to stir anything up I am just pointing to another theory which I think has more merit. The Donohue-Levitt hypothesis.


I have a tendency to believe this is a key factor to the crime rate reduction

Daniel April 11, 2012 2:00 PM


But from what I have read crime rates aren’t falling. Reported crime rates have fallen but that appears to be a function of the fact that police are letting more criminals go or reclassifying their crimes because in many police departments the rate of pay is tied to reduced crime.

There seems to be a belief that reported crime=actual crime and that simply isn’t true. And by reported I don’t mean the victim reporting it but the way the police departments are reporting it.

Anders April 11, 2012 2:04 PM

(I’m a policeofficer in a smaller european country)
The chance of actually catching a person by using forensics are not that high. Shows like CSI and such, paints a false picture of resources and technology. Most crime gets solved by witnesses and forensics is mostly just the last nail in the suspects coffin, so to speak.

I don’t have big moral objections against legalizing the “tame drugs”. I just don’t think it will work. Its not the drugs that creates the crime, its the money. And if some drugs are legalized, gangs and criminals would just change focus to other drugs or other kinds of crime.

Take the example of Holland. The country is now reversing the laws on drugs and making them more stricts. And btw Holland its pretty much the transit country for most harder drugs to northern europe.

nonegiven April 11, 2012 2:04 PM

I’ve heard people complain about police not taking a statement about a crime, no paper work and they have “less crime.”

Joe Buck April 11, 2012 2:23 PM

Daniel, how do you square your claim that the police are “letting more criminals go” with the fact that far more are in jail today than in 1990 even though the crime rates are so much lower?

casey April 11, 2012 2:27 PM

External discipline is a two part process. The first part is to identify and punshish undesireable behavior. The second is to reconcile the individual to the social group and observe the hoped for correction. Our justice system is heavily weighted to only the first part- due to political and economic motivations. If all we do is punish, we create a sub-class of insane group members who will behave in a far more unpredictable way.

I admit that I do not relish the thought of a prisoner moving in next door, but the benefits of having a redemptive justice system would far out-weigh any issue I have with such a neighbor. In fact, I have no idea whether my neighbors have done time so it is safe to assume that at some point I must have lived next to someone who has.

Anders April 11, 2012 2:45 PM

In my country its the other way around. But that can have its sideeffects too. If the victim, people close to the victim or the general population don’t get the feeling, that some kind of revenge is served, it will lead to vigilant behavior and even worse, the general population will get the feeling that the system is unjust.

Lately the extreme focus on only resocializing the criminal has shifted.

There are extremes on both resocializing and punishment. My country taken the first to the extreme, maybe the states have taken the second? I don’t know, cause I dont live there.

gwern April 11, 2012 2:52 PM

Take the example of Holland. The country is now reversing the laws on drugs and making them more stricts.

Anders, are they not doing that because a new and Conservative government has come into power which hates drug liberalization – rather than because, say, the experiment has sparked a crime wave crippling Amsterdam?

Retired CoP April 11, 2012 2:55 PM

While there are many factors involved, I think there is a consensus among criminologists the most significant in this case is demographics. The offspring of the baby boomers are “aging out” of the crime-prone years.

However, the argument can be made pressure to reduce the size of agency budgets is reflected in the decline. The argument has been made that DoJ’s UCRS has been and is too easily influenced by both Congress and the White House.

And crimes in correctional facilities most certainly are included in the Uniform Crime Reports. Your thesis has been investigated thoroughly. Check the literature for papers and dissertations that have studied whether those crimes are under-reported at an equivalent rate as under-reporting in society generally–I don’t believe you’ll find a convincing conclusion either way. You can certainly find studies supporting your thesis, but objectively I think you’ll see there are also contravening results and on balance it’s inconclusive.

This is criminology 101. The hard stuff is drilling into the superficial numbers and finding ways to influence behaviors, including reporting behaviors in organizations and society generally. Reporting or not reporting is hard; acknowledged to be hard and the object of considerable effort to “solve.” Everyone wants accurate numbers to either add or subtract from law enforcement and correctional budgets.

If you’re going to stray from your acknowledged area of expertise, either get help or spend some time getting smart. The literature is full of research on the demographics connection. Some has even made it into USA Today, NYT and other media outlets.

Griff April 11, 2012 2:56 PM


I didn’t think the probability was as high as in those TV shows because TV has a way of embellishing reality. When compared to decades ago when that technology wasn’t around every little bit helps even if it’s a small percentage or used more as a solid confirmation to back up other evidence.

I’m not in law enforcement so I can’t speak direct to it so I drew my conclusions of just thinking about the technological and scientific progress we’ve made as a society that it was a possible factor, if even a small one.

Jenny Juno April 11, 2012 3:40 PM


And if some drugs are legalized, gangs and criminals would just change focus to other drugs or other kinds of crime.

Based on the American experience with alcohol prohibition you are absolutely right. Prohibition lead directly to the creation of serious organized crime and when prohibition was repealed, those syndicates just shifted to other forms of criminal activity – not as lucrative but still in their “area of expertise”

However, as the syndicate members “aged out” and the FBI made a concerted effort to dismantle those organizations, violent organized crime was significantly reduced. It is reasonable to believe that if Prohibition had never been repealed, those criminal syndicates would be even bigger today.

So, while legalization is not an immediate fix, it does appear to be the first step on the rather long road of reducing the criminality that the drug trade has nurtured.

No One April 11, 2012 3:49 PM

@Jenny Juno: I have to play Devil’s Advocate here — what evidence do we have that had prohibition not been repealed we would not have eventually gotten a handle on the issue and possibly (nearly) eliminated drunk driving (up to 2/3 of our traffic accidents, or 20k deaths per year) as a result? Even as it stands we’ve only been in prohibition mode on drugs for 40 years — perhaps it’ll just be another ten or so before we get to the end of that tunnel?

Obviously, as it stands, our prohibition stance on drugs is a net loss, but I’m not so certain that it’ll always be a net loss.

Frank Ch. Eigler April 11, 2012 3:50 PM

I think the error underlying the author’s suggestion is the deification of the concept of “crime rate” as the thing to be lowered. But it’s not. It’s the crime befalling innocent victims.

John Thurston April 11, 2012 4:07 PM

@Frank Ch. Eigler

So it’s ok to rape a car thief who’s doing time with you?

dragonfrog April 11, 2012 4:16 PM

@No One

According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drunk_driving_in_the_United_States#Statistics you’ve got your stats wrong on drunk drivers causing 2/3 of accidents.

Summary from that page:

  • only around 40% of traffic deaths in the US are thought to be “alcohol related”

  • “alcohol related” doesn’t necessarily mean a drivers had been drinking; the person drinking could have been any person somehow involved – a passenger, a pedestrian, a cyclist

  • “alcohol related” doesn’t necessarily mean the supposed alcohol consumption had to have anything to do with the accident – the person who had been drinking might have been half alseep in a passenger seat not bothering anyone, and it would still count

  • “alcohol related” doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone took an alcohol test – the police simply have to suspect it (indeed, they can only force drivers to take a breathalyzer – if the person thought to have been drinking was a pedestrian who was hit by a careless but sober driver, they couldn’t typically get confirmation of their suspicions)

  • “alcohol related” doesn’t mean anyone was drunk. The blood alcohol level they suspect can be as low as 0.01%. A typical person might reach that level by drinking 1/3 or 1/2 of a beer. That’s pretty close to stone cold sober.

No One April 11, 2012 4:27 PM

Okay, let’s say 10% of car accident deaths are caused by alcohol. That’s 3k per year. 3k in 300M is 1:100k, which is, as far as I remember, the death rate at which you should start doing something to mitigate it — it has become “significant.”

I’m just saying, what are the potential benefits? How can we be (fairly) certain that we’ll never achieve that?

All I’m seeing is arguments about potential benefits when I was really interested in determining whether those goals are achievable.

tOM Trottier April 11, 2012 5:00 PM

FWIW, Texas has an “introductory” criminal program. Break a school rule, get convicted of a misdemeanour or a felony!
“…a courtroom full of teenagers and their parents who are facing “Class C” misdemeanour offences for skipping school.

“I ran into a mother recently whose daughter wrote her name on a school desk in highlighter and she was given a felony conviction for that.

“there are still discretionary tickets being issued for swearing or wearing banned jewellery.

“I know kids who had tickets and they would rip them up and not pay them. Then about a month later, I saw the police come and take them to jail.

“Scott says he doesn’t want to end up on the same path as his brother, but with more than one in seven Texas students now involved with the juvenile justice system, the odds are not in his favour. “

Brandioch Conner April 11, 2012 5:08 PM

@Jenny Juno
“So, while legalization is not an immediate fix, it does appear to be the first step on the rather long road of reducing the criminality that the drug trade has nurtured.”

I agree.
I’d say that most of the people in the drug trade are not there because of a moral imperative but to make money.

The money is there because the demand is there AND the product is illegal.

You cannot do much about the demand. But you can make it legal (increase the supply) and reduce the risk which would reduce the profits.

Although I believe that, initially, the more violent criminals will attempt to migrate to other crimes. But without the profits I don’t see that as sustainable.

Matt Macy April 11, 2012 5:09 PM

One other thing to take in to account is how “just” the justice system is. By many metrics the US Justice system is one of the most deeply flawed in the developed world. For one who is not wealthy enough to have a PR agent to counter the negative press resulting from the established relationship between the DA’s offices and their local papers and to retain an attorney that is sufficiently successful that he never needs to take court appointed cases and thus cannot be pressured by the calendar court in to coercing a plea bargain, the odds of success against an emotionally invested DA are essentially zero. It is difficult to say how well the judicial system actually works and how fair it is because so few cases, which serve as de facto audits of the system, are tried. The system is reliant on plea bargains, which, because of the ease with which prosecutors can over charge and the high trial penalty, amount to coerced confessions.

In addition, there are no credible checks on prosecutors – in the US prosecutors are essentially never prosecuted for misconduct and cannot be held civilly liable. The checks on judges are expensive to exercise and are often mostly symbolic.

To give an idea of where the US stands I’ll present some of the checks that are in place in a country that recently had the reputation of its court system tarnished in the US as a result of its (thanks to extensive expenditures by her parents on PR) suboptimal handling of the Amanda Knox case.

Italy’s justice system has a number of checks on the extent to which individuals can abuse their power: a) Selective prosecution is illegal e.g. if the plaintiffs were committing a crime against the defendant – they need to prosecuted too. This prevents DA’s offices from effectively being used, inadvertently or deliberately, to advance criminal interests. In the US it is accepted that the prosecutor prosecutes who he wants – regardless of the context. b) If the total sentence for the charges exceeds 5 years then the case has to go to trial. This limits the extent to which prosecutors can cheaply rack up “convictions” by coercing confessions through overcharging (it is common in the US for a prosecutor to give a defendant a dozen charges and then offer a plea for one – putting a very high penalty on losing at trial). c) In Italy prosecutors are actually charged and prosecuted for misconduct, in the US a prosecutor typically has to have numerous instances of alleged misconduct over the course of decades before a state bar will do anything. Nifong’s case was extremely unusual – not in what he did, but in that the plaintiffs had the money for truly indpendent counsel and the PR muscle to get him removed. d) In Italy the appeals courts look at the actual merits of the case as opposed to simply the legal basis on which the case was tried and consequently actually overturn a statistically significant number of convictions. In the US, appeals courts are not permitted to “second guess” juries. In short, I would say that the Italian legal system recognizes that prosecutors and judges are fallible people just like the defendants themselves. The US justice system with fewer than 3% of cases going to trial at the federal level and fewer than 4% of cases going to trial at the state level and virtually no oversight over prosecutors or judges presupposes that members of the justice system are vastly more ethical than the man on the street. In my personal experience, and from reading about the court’s conduct in countless cases, I would say that, if anything, they are less.

There are also a number of things that the Italy does to facilitate the successful reintegration of former prisoners in to society. This likely contributes to its much lower recidivism rate.

Italy doesn’t have a voter base that wants to subsidize a large prison construction industry or prison guards’ union by imprisoning over 1% of its adult population like the US. By comparison it has a relatively limited number of cells available. Probably as a consequence, property crime is higher than in the US. However, violent crime is actually much lower. For example, the per capita murder rate in San Francisco, a relatively ordinary large US city, is higher than in Naples, the heart of the Camorra – center of substantial amounts of child poverty and perhaps one of the most poorly run cities in Europe. People learn by example, and the US Justice system by dint of its arbitrariness, the length of its sentences, and the way it makes prisons a revolving door, teaches the lower classes that people are disposable.

P April 11, 2012 5:15 PM

I highly recommend William J. Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice (Harvard University Press, 2011) for a contextualized analysis of the rise in imprisonment and decline in crime rates over the past few decades.

Some of Stuntz’s arguments are outlined in the New Yorker article, `The Caging of America’ (January, 2012) that was discussed in this post: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2012/02/prisons_in_the.html

The Moother April 11, 2012 5:22 PM

Anders, Holland is not “reversing” anything regarding their drug laws… they are merely “adjusting” the policies to limit drug tourism by issuing “weed cards” to locals who will need to present them when buying grass.

Another fallacy in your argument is that criminal gangs will move elsewhere to fund their lives of crime if drugs are legalized. It cannot be true that other such lucrative avenues will suddenly open up for them to exploit.

We need to remove the excessive profits they currently make. Whatever they chose to do next they are already doing now.

calvin April 11, 2012 5:37 PM

the decline of crime rates does tend to correlate to the decline of atmospheric and other sources of lead which was largely eliminated by the removal of leaded gasoline.

there is a time delayed effect to this possible environmental cause, which would affect the developing brain, but corresponding effects would not be seen until adolescence or adulthood.

The Moother April 11, 2012 5:58 PM

As Pinker rightly notes in BAoON, chronic incarceration suffers from diminishing returns.

By way of all the algebra I can muster this means that reducing crime 50% will entail locking up x</> amount of baddies.

To reduce it by 50% again (i.e. to bring it down to 75% of the original figure) we’d need to lock up 2x</> baddies.

What needs to be stressed here is that the more prisoners there are the more innocent there will be among them.

So if you yanks feel that locking up millions for very little result is a good idea then you are, simply put, plain wrong. And if you are prepared to lock up innocents to achieve the unattainable then you are, simply put, a bunch of assholes.

Steve April 11, 2012 9:03 PM

I admit I did not read the linked essay, just the excerpt from the posting, but how can the “abortion of unwanted children” be considered a factor in the decline of sexual assaults? The other factors could be plausibly related, but that one escapes me.

John David Galt April 11, 2012 9:39 PM

First, let’s release the 90%+ of inmates who are in jail for reasons that no one should ever be put in jail for. (Yes, I’m talking about victimless crimes — but not just vices, the entire very broad category spelt out in Robert Ringer’s Restoring the American Dream.)

Then let’s strip police of their immunity, so that those who use unnecessary force or demand bribes can be held accountable.

The jails will still be less than half as full as now — and the law will have regained its credibility with the people by being (1) fair and (2) fairly applied, neither of which it is now.

Society is not going to be law-abiding if the law and the people who enforce it don’t both earn the people’s respect.

Randall April 12, 2012 12:17 AM

Absolutely agree we’re locking up too many people–kids are going to jail for having some marijuana, coming out unemployable and having spent a bunch of time around criminals, and thus more likely to commit crime. Jailing fewer of these people might increase the crime rate: people arrested and jailed for things like using pot are disproportioately poor (even if surveys say pot users come from all classes!), and poor people are more likely to commit certain crimes (folks who have loot don’t have as much reason to steal).

On the other hand, fewer arrests and less incarceration would have the longer-term social benefit of giving kids a chance to be productive who are now in prison or who will now always have trouble getting jobs because of their past conviction. Over the long term that might more than balance out any short-term rise in crime.

And, most important, we wouldn’t be locking two million human beings up in jail! You can’t act as if criminals aren’t people and punishment has no moral cost, as if person + pot = non-person.

MarkH April 12, 2012 12:30 AM


“Heart disease: 599,413
We have bigger fish to fry than drunk driving”

Well, it seems that perhaps tens of millions in the USA drink sufficiently immoderately, that they seriously increase their risk of heart disease. Oops!

Also, I learned only recently how terribly devastating Fetal Alcohol Syndrome can be. I haven’t looked for data on this, but it seems plausible to me that those growing up with life-long mental impairment due to FAS might contribute significantly to the incidence of crime.

Drug abuse has many ways to kill, maim and otherwise deprive.

MarkH April 12, 2012 12:42 AM


From a recent year (2008), NHTSA:

“alcohol-impaired-driving fatalities accounted for 32 percent of the total motor vehicle traffic fatalities in the United States”

NHTSA defines an “alcohol-impaired driving fatality” as “any fatality occurring in a crash involving a driver with a BAC of .08 or higher”, where “driver” means “the operator of any motor vehicle, including a motorcycle”.

It would seem that the 11,773 fatalities that NHTSA so classified in 2008 were not attributable to passengers with alcohol, pedestrians or cyclists with alcohol, drivers who were (by legal standards) “stone cold sober”, or drivers whose blood alcohol content was not known.

Based on statistics I remember from many years ago, I think it likely that each year also has thousands more road fatalities of pedestrians who were alcohol-impaired.

keith April 12, 2012 1:24 AM

If it weren’t for the popularity of prison America might still have some world class boxers. Instead an entire sport is basically crumbling away.

aaaa April 12, 2012 4:07 AM

@MarkH The mother has to be serious alcoholic in order to have baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. It is not that occasional cup of wine while pregnant can not cause that, it is that getting drunk once a week can not cause that.

Of course, getting drunk once a week while pregnant most likely cause other health problems.

The previous generation of mother drunk while pregnant more, but I vaguely remember some stats telling that it had less women alcoholics.

Given that, alcohol fetal syndrome can be hardly responsible for larger societal trends.

Mike B April 12, 2012 6:22 AM

Using a phenomena called the Will Rodgers Paradox I think it might be possible to actually reduce the prison population AND have less crime. The paradox is where someone moves from place A to place B and raises and average Intelligence (or other statistic) in both places simply through the act of moving. While prisoners are at the bottom rung of American society, unable to find employment due to their low education and criminal record, in certain developing countries they would have far more qualifications than the local population. Moreover the cost of maintaining them in such locations would be far less than it is domestically.

Sending a selection of our prison population overseas where they could be maintained with housing, social programmes and a cash stipend several times the local per capita all for a fraction of the cost of domestic imprisonment would not only get them out of traditional prisons and put them in a society where their skills are much more useful, it would render them unable to add to the domestic crime rate.

Finally I would like to point out that at least 500,000 persons in prisons are there due to some sort of mental disorder. Prior to the 1970’s these persons would ave been locked up in mental institutions, but since those were largely closed the population has simply transferred to prison. Yes I am sure there are better ways to deliver mental health services to the poor, but the point is that these people would never be able to just be out and about in their communities if prison sentences weren’t so onerous.

Frank Ch. Eigler April 12, 2012 8:06 AM

@John Thurston, “So it’s ok to rape a car thief who’s doing time with you?”

Better them than civilians.
Better yet none of them, but that may be unachievable (isolating prisoners better).
Worse is to release violent people and inflict them on the society at large.

jacob April 12, 2012 8:26 AM

At the risk of raising someone’s ire, I’ll weigh in.

  1. In Freakonomics the case is made that abortions have had something to do with lowering the crime rate.
  2. Minor offenses are too quickly moved to felonies if “they” can get you for it.
  3. Nonviolent crimes are too often met with a long jail sentence with very violent criminals. This is not exactly a good outcome for society. And if not they try to get a guilty plea for anything they can and hurt someone’s efforts in society.
  4. Perhaps crime rates have dropped because the population number in jail is so high. (and probably unfair, look at the rates for black males for example)
  5. Corrections can and has been farmed out to business, not a good way to ensure that they are treated humanely or fairly when money/profits are involved..

I personally believe that most nonviolent criminals shouldn’t be incarcerated as much.

ok. here goes. Maybe we should break it down to restitution, long jail sentences, or death and effort to rehabilitate. The american criminal justice system has a long history of trying to decide whether we want to punish or rehabilitate and has rarely done either very well.

Just my thoughts.
BTW I would suggest watching the 45?min youtube, “don’t talk to cops”. IN it a defense attourney and a detective give a lecture. Then think about the crime shows and reality of evidence….

Will Albenzi April 12, 2012 8:44 AM

Several things seem apparent to me:

First, once a punishment against a prisoner is finished, the prisoner should become fully free, and criminal convictions should not be grounds for discrimination in jobs or employment.

Second, fewer things should be crimes. Even fewer of those should be punishable with imprisonment.

Third, prisons should fill a dual purpose with two distinct phases: Punishment and Rehabilitation. Rehabilitation effectiveness can and should be measured.

Matt Macy April 12, 2012 9:35 AM

1. It is an interesting possibility, but bringing it up could easily derail any sort of constructive discussion.
2. This is an established convention and is part of what is referred to as “overcharging” as a means of coercing a plea.
3. Prosecutors measure themselves by aggregate sentences that they’ve imposed on defendants, not by social outcomes.
4. More poor people with a propensity to theft being in prison correlates strongly with lower property crime rates. It isn’t necessarily economically positive because it doesn’t take in to account the high cost of incarceration. If someone who has shop lifted several hundred dollars worth of items ends up spending years in prison as a result. the cost of punishment in tax dollars grossly outweighs the cost in shrinkage. Of course there is the question of deterrence value of longer prison sentences, but it isn’t clear how high that is for serial offenders that the “corrections” system has made no effort to rehabilitate.

There doesn’t seem to be any correlation between longer prison sentences and mass incarceration in general with violent crimes. Those seem to be more a function of demographics and cultural mores (i.e. the perceived value of individual’s life to society).
5. It isn’t just a question of humanity, if it is simply a question of maximizing the number of prisoners then there is actually a financial incentive to increase crime by socially crippling those in the corrections system and ensuring that they will be perpetual recidivists. Notice that prison guards’ unions, prison builders, and private prisons are compensated by raw numbers of prisoners not by successful outcomes. I’m not suggesting that the state try to compensate them by some abstract metric, I’m just pointing out that the incentive system rewards behavior by state actors that runs actively counter to those of society at large. It may seem like an academic point, but in general an incentive system plays a decisive role in a group’s conduct – and here the incentive system is an obviously toxic one.

Jason April 12, 2012 9:43 AM

Article’s premise is bunk: there is not some growing, seething mass of hidden crime inside prison.

Homicide rate in the US as a whole: 4.8 per 100,000 in 2010.

Homicide rate in US prisons: 4 per 100,000 in 2002.

Homicide rate in the US declined by 50% between 1990 and 2002. Homicide rate in prisons dropped by the same factor over the same time frame.

If you suspect that crimes are being unreported in prison, that’s why I chose homicides. Homicides in prison are required to be reported to the Feds, so there are good statistics for it. Also, as the folks on The Wire say, you can fudge the stats on a rape or a robbery, but you can’t make a body go away. Best you can do is rule a violent death a suicide. But suicide rates have also fallen in prison.

Case closed.

Matt Macy April 12, 2012 9:45 AM

The statistical claims being invalid weakens the argument but does not invalidate the entire premise of the article.

jacob April 12, 2012 9:53 AM

@Matt. thanks, I enjoyed your response. My arguement would include that just because it is a difficult topic shouldn’t preclude a discussion. Part of the problem of politics is that there are not enough honest frank discussions. The aruguments about debt, medicare, taxes, etc. are a sad example judging by the participants so far..Present both sides, be polite, and don’t demonize the other side..sigh, if only..

Part of it to admit that it is a difficult complex problem. Most people would admit the current corrections system needs to be fixed, I hope..BTW contrary to how “liberal” my post looked, I am quite conservative. 😉

MarkH April 12, 2012 11:18 AM


I only recently began learning about FAS, I don’t pretend to be an expert. According to the US National Institutes of Health:

A pregnant woman who drinks any amount of alcohol is at risk for having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. No “safe” level of alcohol use during pregnancy has been established. Larger amounts of alcohol appear to increase the problems. Binge drinking is more harmful than drinking small amounts of alcohol.

Because there are probably at least 10,000,000 American women who regularly take more than two alcoholic drinks per day, and given that FAS covers a spectrum whose less severe forms may often be unrecognized, it seems possible to me that (regardless of trending upward or downward) it might contribute to a large population more prone to be involved in crime.

Trogdor April 12, 2012 12:15 PM

@Matt Macy

For one who is not wealthy enough to have a PR agent to counter the negative press resulting from the established relationship between [prosecutors] and [the media] and to retain an attorney that is sufficiently successful … the odds of success against an emotionally invested DA are essentially zero.

How true. Just ask George Zimmerman. After all, prosecutor Angela Corey values her life and the lives of her family far more than the NBPP, which I’d say makes her “emotionally invested” in the case.

Matt Macy April 12, 2012 12:24 PM

What point are you trying to make? The use of the phrase “after all” and your reference to the most high profile and volatile case in the United States, if not the world, at the moment, indicates that you may be trying to bait me. Prosecutors can and do get highly invested in cases where no physical harm has occurred. Local politics frequently plays a larger role than the underlying crime.

grendelkhan April 12, 2012 1:10 PM

On the statistics being undershot by cops, there’s an alternate methodology of asking people if they’ve been the victim of a crime, used by the National Crime Victimization Survey, which has been seeing much the same drop in crime. It’s certainly a very real phenomenon.


aaaa April 12, 2012 1:59 PM

@MarkH Alcohol fetal syndrome happens, when mother drinks high levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. No known case of FAS occurred to mother that drunk moderately. However, it was never conclusively found how much is a safe amount. it is much easier to prove that something is dangerous then to prove that something is safe.

Official advice in various countries differ and USA tend to be the most risk averse with everything that concerns pregnant women.

If you want to read something less scary, here is one page I found. It has references on cited studies: http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/FetalAlcoholSyndrome.html

Regarding the last paragraph:
1.) Most women significantly cut drinking when they get pregnant. Stats on drinking non-pregnant women says very little about how much they drunk when pregnant.

2.) Never proven unrecognized currently unmeasurable forms of FAS are pure speculation. If there is such risk, it is currently unmeasurable small and thus hardly major contributor to some societal changes.

Plus, other western countries allow pregnant women to drink and they do not have higher levels of violence then USA.

4.) There is enough scare-mongering targeted to pregnant woman as it is. There is no reason to add some more.

JD Bertron April 12, 2012 2:08 PM

Is it really that hard to understand that some people ‘are’ bad – pedophiles for instance – in the sense that they can’t be rehabilitated, while other just need to be taught a lesson.The problem has always been distinguishing the two from each other.
Any assumption that all criminals need to be locked up because they have a weak character, or the opposite, that society should be willing to live with some amount of crime is missing the point. Both approaches are capitulations based on blanket judgements, either embracing prisons as ways to keep the rest of us safer, or as punishment.
Discussing them further is a complete waste of time.

Trogdor April 12, 2012 5:49 PM

@Matt Macy

I wasn’t trying to bait you, but merely illustrate that point in a way others might not have thought of. This is a case where any jury is likely to be poisoned since one side has massive PR, political, and financial resources, and the other is a guy without that, and who’s only safe if in police protection.

Just_a_number April 12, 2012 5:51 PM

Portugal legalized ALL drugs 10 years ago and has seen crime and usage plummet through the floor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7FshBjkS6U&feature=player_embedded

I agree with the author, but he forgot a section. What about the criminal activity of law enforcement:


Cops kill 10 innocent civilians to 1 person killing a cop. The rate of innocents being beaten nearly to death is probably 500/1.

Communities need to start taking care of themselves, and taking responsibility for their own, rather than creating networks of macabre and twisted incentives. The cops and prison guards have become murders, robbers, and violent offenders without restraint or rebuke, while the prisoners have become victims.

Eliminating the war on drugs is just part of it. You have to dismantle the domestic militarized storm trooper law enforcement machines, slash them to the bone, and bring them to heel! What little law enforcement that should remain must be absolutely answerable to the people, with heavy oversight and enforcement against bad cops. Power unchecked ALWAYS ends badly, and unfortunately we’re nowhere near the end.

I know I’m far more afraid of the cops than the criminals, and I’m a normal upstanding citizen. You should be too.

Brandon April 12, 2012 10:45 PM


Communities need to start taking care of themselves, and taking responsibility for their own.

Hmm … Sounds kinda like a grassroots security operation, perhaps with a well organized structure. Like a “neighborhood watch” … What could go wrong? Oh, wait …

Gomez April 13, 2012 7:40 AM

Stephen Fry on QI pointed out that if you consider prisoners’ forced labour to be slavery, today’s slave population dwarfs that of a few hundred years ago.

The U.S. military clothing budget would explode if it wasn’t for prisoners making clothes virtually for free, for example.

The U.S. prison system is substantially privatised.

It’s an economic entity, rather than a social welfare one.

karrde April 13, 2012 8:54 AM

Question about correlation between crime and economic hard times:

What happened to crime rates during the Great Depression?

LevelHead April 13, 2012 3:45 PM

The main problem with criminals in the US is that they are coddled in prison. They languish around all day with nothing to do but make connections and think of new crimes to commit, either against the prison population or the public when they are released.

All hard core criminals, gang-bangers, etc., should be put to hard, but fair, not abusive, labor. Start out breaking rocks in the desert all day, every day. They’ll be so tired all they’ll do is hit the sack at night, and they certainly will not want to go back once released, no more easy times, just hard labor while incarcerated.

Matt Macy April 13, 2012 4:27 PM

You know a lot of people who relished their time while incarcerated? Have you established a correlation between the discomfort of time served and reduced recidivism?

Just_a_number April 13, 2012 7:27 PM


Per your grassroots neighborhood watch comment:

Law enforcement murdered at least 127 people (excessive use of force, not use of lawful lethal force) in year 2010 alone, 91 by firearms alone. The rest were beat to death, tased to death etc.


It’s still unclear whether the straw man incident in question was an improper use of force. Some witness accounts, if true, would make said incident’s use of lethal force completely legitimate and correct. We’ll just have to see what actually happened, rather than listen to the racially divisive and fictitious narrative spun by the fear mongering media.

JB April 15, 2012 9:44 AM

The problem is the target – 100% security.

You can only achieve that if your eighter reduce the population to 1 or if you put everybody in a save cell with computer live support (assuming the computer to be 100% reliable).

We don’t want to live like that – behind fences, with video surveilance everywhere etc. I always notice that the most at the Olympic games. It looks like a super-prison now. Everybody entering is frisked. People are separated, people are labeled, scrutiniced all the time. The Olympic heros are being herded arround like prisoners … It’s a shame. These are no longer games for free, happy people. And it’s just like that more and more. The schools are becoming more and more like that. Hell, somebody could hurt a child. Better let them all be save and they will get used to semi-prison live from the very beginning. What happens when that generation gets into power ?

Really, what we want is freedom. I mean real freedom. That includes risk by its very definition. I don’t want to be save. We all have to die anyway. Let’s make live pleasant until then.

And yes, if the gap between rich and poor becomes to big any free society will show that with riots. So let’s not only be free, let’s also see that that gap remains within reasonable limits.

Chris April 15, 2012 3:44 PM

One thing that struck me is this statement:
“And yet the death penalty does offer one interesting benefit, from the point of view of prison abolition, because the first question any prison abolitionist needs to answer is what we’re supposed to do with violent criminals. An important part of that answer has to be that we must simply put up with an increased level of risk in our daily lives.

If he had wanted to, the author could have made the point that the last sentence in this paragraph is EXACTLY what the NRA is asking us to do with guns. You either restrict the freedom of law-abiding gun owners or accept that we’ll have random mass shootings every so often. Of course, they don’t articulate it that way, but that’s essentially the security trade off.

This strikes me as odd and somewhat sad because the NRA, by and large, always wins that argument yet people seem to accept and even demand the limitations on liberty required by other security trade-offs (e.g. “tough on crime” laws, militarized police forces and the TSA). I’ve always believed that the TSA’s “no fly” list should be used for federal gun background checks if only to force the NRA into killing it all together.

aaaa April 16, 2012 2:57 AM

@LevelHead The conditions in US prisons are no better then conditions in other western countries. If anything, they are worst. Those are just easy to get an outrage talking points.

Frank Scott April 19, 2012 7:02 PM

One serious problem with our prison environment is that the prisoners are allowed to continue, and at an even concentrated form, the behaviors that led to their incarceration in the first place. The coerced membership in gangs, the overt racism and sexism (male on male), rape, battery, the misconception of fear for respect, the violence and fear that result from a life of low self-esteem, the hopelessness of helplessness and the helplessness of hopelessness. Until the prison system can effectively prevent the continuation and intensification of the bad behavior and disfunctional society that prevents the prisoners to gain any true self-respect and true appreciation for the gift of life prisoners will continue to become incorregable and unmanageable.

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