Monday, April 11, 2011

Do more prisons mean less crime?

By Rina Palta, The Informant, March 28, 2011:

After 30 years of prison boom in the United States, people are starting to question the usefulness of incarcerating large numbers of people, especially for less serious crimes. In New York, where prison populations skyrocketed after the state passed a series of tough sentencing laws for drug offenders, recent changes have dramatically reduced the prison population. In California, budget woes and federal lawsuits have inspired things like the introduction of non-revocable parole and an expansion in good-time credits for prison inmates–both policies designed to cut down the prison population.
Now, Governor Jerry Brown wants to do more. The current budget calls for less restrictive supervision for a whole host of lower level crimes. That means that fewer crimes carry the penalty of state prison, fewer people getting out go under the strict supervision of state parole, and those that violate parole would likely not go back to prison for the violation.
The Parole Agent Association is starting to push back against these changes–because less parole means the elimination of jobs, but also because parole agents and correctional officers believe in what they do.
In a recent memo to membership, Parole Agent Association of California President Todd Gillam wrote:
According to the Attorney General, California is experiencing the lowest level of criminal activity since the 1980’s. The crime rate is not only low, it is still declining. The entire California criminal justice system, to include CDCR and DAPO, are to be commended for the safety in which Californians live.
It’s an argument we’re likely to hear a lot in the coming months and years as California and states around the nation look to scale back their prison systems. And the timing is hard to ignore: over the past 20 years, as the prison population has skyrocketed, crime has gone down. Does that mean the prison boom and the dramatic rise in incarceration rates have cut crime and kept Americans (at least those not in prison) safer?
The consensus among scholars seems to be that are many factors that contribute to crime levels and its hard to pinpoint any one change as the source of their rise and fall–but that the uptick in incarceration likely accounts for about 25 percent of the nation’s drop in crime.
In 2008, the Pew Center on the States interviewed two preeminent criminologists, Carnegie Mellon’s James Wilson and Pepperdine’s Alfred Blumstein on the impact of incarceration on crime. The interview revealed the reasoning and meaning behind this 25 percent figure.
Blumstein told Pew, “there is little question that incarceration can contribute to crime reduction, but rarely as much as its advocates claim.” The combined factors of deterrence and taking those committing crimes out of commission by locking them up can reduce crime to a point. But that model doesn’t work for crimes that involve market demands, “like theft rings and drug dealing.” If a drug dealer is taken out of commission, they’re simply replaced, Blumstein said, often with someone younger and perhaps less restrained in what they’re willing to do.
Blumstein goes on to say that it’s not so much that incarceration isn’t effective, but that it’s effectiveness has been diluted through over-use. If we were more selective about who is incarcerated he said, we’d have “the highest yield in crimes averted per prisoner.”
Wilson concludes that it’s “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.”
In an era where we extrapolate a lot from what we see–a high profile crime always provokes cries that there are systemic flaws, and we’re constantly looking for broad, sweeping changes that will yield tangible results–both men recommend thinking small: stick to programs and projects that have proved they’ve impacted individuals.

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