The Research Wars

Walking to my hotel through Amsterdam's deserted early morning streets, I felt a sharp poke in my back and heard an accented voice behind me. "Do you know what this is? It's a knife. Now, you are going to give me your money or else I will stab you, and kick you, and kill you, and throw you into the river."

"That's a canal, not a river," I replied, before a second poke persuaded me to hand over the cash.

In 1985, James Q. Wilson wrote, "There aren't any liberals left ... . They've all been mugged by now." Wilson had a point. Thoughts of humanitarian treatment for the perpetrators of violent crime flew out the window. If sending muggers to prison for life could make the streets safer, so be it.

David Mulhausen, who studies crime at the conservative Heritage Foundation, concurs. "I'm a first-strike guy," he says. "You rob a bank, you should go away for the rest of your life. People who burglarize aren't accidentally walking into someone's house."

Things haven't quite come to that in America, but after undergoing something of a collective mugging between 1963 and 1973, when the murder rate more than doubled, the United States began a massive expansion of its prison population unparalleled in the democratic world. The number of people behind bars in the United States grew more than 600 percent in the past 30 years, while the population grew just 72 percent. Largely, however, it is the result of tougher sentencing criteria and longer prison terms.

The psychology behind this expansion is easy to understand, but assessing whether or not it works is a much more difficult task. Simplistic analyses of the relationship between crime and incarceration can produce pretty much any result the investigator desires.

In an October 2000 National Review article, Eli Lehrer, arguing that the expansion of the prison system from 1,148,702 combined state and federal inmates in 1990 to 1,893,115 in 1999 was well worth the price, wrote, "Had the 1999 crime rates been the same as those of 1990, America would have seen about 7,800 additional murders, 20,000 or so additional rapes, and nearly a quarter-million more armed attacks."

A prison skeptic, however, could just as easily point out that in 1985, when 744,208 people were behind bars, the murder rate was 7.9 per 100,000 people, and that nine years later, doubling the number of incarcerated to 1,476,621, the murder rate increased to 9.0 per hundred thousand. By 1993 the murder rate was 9.5.

The problem, as Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring points out, is that of all the factors affecting the incidence of violent crime -- the proportion of young men in the population, the rate of incarceration, the availability of jobs, the popularity of crack cocaine -- "the only thing that's monotonic is that you have increasing imprisonment." In other words, every year the number of Americans behind bars goes up while the crime rate fluctuates due to other factors. Nevertheless, Zimring notes, "It would be astonishing if locking up 2 million people had zero effect on the crime rate."

As Mulhausen says, this is basically a matter of common sense. "If you put an offender behind prison," he explains, "he can't rape or rob you." This is known as the "incapacitation" effect of incarceration. Combined with the deterrence effect of hard time, prison does reduce crime.

The trouble with prison isn't that it doesn't work; the trouble is that it doesn't work very well but does cost a fortune compared with other ways of reducing crime. Feeding, clothing, housing and guarding a convict for a year costs more than $20,000, plus the price of physically constructing the facilities in which the expected transformation takes place. Moreover, while each additional year you add to an offender's sentence costs the same amount (until the offender gets old and develops serious medical problems, at which point it increases), the anti-crime benefits of each additional year are less than the costs of the year before. At this point, trying to control crime by building more prisons is like trying to blow your nose with $20 bills: It works, but it's not a very good idea.

The case for rolling back incarceration, then, isn't that prisons haven't brought down crime rates, but that if we spent the money more wisely, we could bring crime down more effectively and even save some cash to spend on other priorities. Alternatives exist on both the front and back ends of the criminal-justice system. Pre-prison, convicts can be "diverted" into nonprison programs like mandatory drug treatment that are much cheaper than full-scale prisons. Post-incarceration, shorter sentences can be combined with properly supervised parole programs that replicate the crime-reduction effects of imprisonment at a fraction of the cost. In Texas (Texas!), a system of graduated sanctions for minor parole violations is credited by officials with an 8,000-person reduction in the state's prison population. Other re-entry programs aimed at integrating ex-offenders into the law-abiding community can reduce recidivism.

Diversion looks most promising in the case of the nonviolent drug offenders who've accounted for the bulk of the recent growth in the prison population. Since 1980, the number of drug dealers behind bars has increased 15-fold, but drugs are easier to obtain than ever. The price of heroin is down 95 percent, cocaine 90 percent. To actually reduce drug use (worthwhile on its own, vital for violent-crime reduction) through longer and surer imprisonment, we would need to send an unimaginable number of people to prison. The drug business is a business like any other -- if you eliminate a salesman without eliminating the demand, the salesman's boss is just going to hire someone else. Drug treatment, by contrast, actually works because a reformed drug user isn't automatically replaced with a new addict, and treatment programs aimed at consumption reduction are seven times cheaper than prison.

None of this is to say that prison is never the right solution, or that there are no circumstances under which increased incarceration would be an effective strategy. In contemporary America, however, we've moved well past that point. Richard Kern of the Virginia Sentencing Commission says that laws like California's famous "three strikes and you're out" rule go "beyond the point of diminishing returns" because even "career criminals have a period of peak performance." Robbery, he explains, is "a crime of the young," with incidence dropping dramatically in the mid-20s and falling to almost nothing as people move through their 30s.

Similarly, doubling sentencing length doubles (or more) corrections expenditures without doubling the deterrent effect on potential offenders. Simply putting a larger proportion of the people who get arrested behind bars is subject to diminishing returns as well, because as long as prosecutors and judges are minimally competent, they'll have made sure that the worst criminals are already locked up. Whether you look at deterrence or incapacitation, beyond a certain point prison stops being cost-effective.

More rigorous research methods support this intuitive argument. William Spelman of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs has done some of the best-regarded analyses of this issue and concludes that increased imprisonment does, in fact, reduce crime. Using multiple regression analyses of crime and incarceration rates over the past few decades, as well as many other relevant variables from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, he credits about 27 percent of the 1990s drop in violent crime to the prison buildup.

His research indicates that prison is actually somewhat more effective than some earlier studies had claimed. Spelman's findings improved on previous research methods that had calculated only the incapacitation effect without measuring the importance of deterrence.

So is the right vindicated? Have conservatives finally found a government program they can love? According to Spelman, no. "It doesn't make any sense," he says, "to put more people in prison." The problem is this: The "elasticity" of prison with respect to violent crime is calculated to be approximately -0.4, meaning that a 1 percent increase in the prison population will lead to a 0.4 percent decline in the crime rate. In a country with only 200,000 people incarcerated, this looks like a pretty good deal: Add 10,000 new prisoners and the increased deterrence and incapacitation will give you a 2 percent drop in crime. With 2 million people behind bars today, however, you'd need to lock up 100,000 additional offenders to achieve the same effect, at around 10 times the cost.

At this point, increased levels of incarceration have become so costly that most other crime-reduction outlays would be a better investment. According to Spelman, "the benefits of reducing crime by introducing another prison cell are about one-third the costs" of the crime thereby averted, suggesting that even doing nothing might be an improvement over the status quo. Zimring went so far as to suggest that even a "prison training program to teach robbers how to burglarize unoccupied dwellings" would work better than more prisons as a method of reducing violent crime.

That's far-fetched, of course, but it illustrates a larger point: Giving muggers an alternative to mugging is the best way to get them to stop. Even Heritage's Mulhausen concedes that "there's some research that shows that vocational training helps reduce recidivism."

Employment can reduce crime for essentially the same reason that more prisons do. A job incapacitates a potential offender in much the way that hard time does: Every hour you spend working is an hour you don't have free to commit crimes. And the more money you can earn on the outside, the more deterring power the threat of incarceration holds.

The notion that jobs rather than jails hold the real key to crime reduction isn't just a bleeding-heart liberal fantasy -- it's supported by sound social-science research. The unemployment rate per se turns out not to be very important, but UCLA economist Jeffrey Grogger has estimated that the elasticity of crime participation with respect to wages is -1.0, two and a half times higher than the elasticity provided by incarceration. Much, though by no means all, of the crime drop of the 1990s can in fact be attributed to the 4 percent increase in youth wages that began in 1993. Wages, of course, are influenced by the unemployment rate, so the tight labor market of the '90s and the consequent growth in wages earned by young people bear a good deal of responsibility for the drop in crime.

Working to ensure the existence of a healthy economy should be a government priority under all circumstances, but research by Peter Greenwood of the RAND Corporation indicates that there's room for efforts in this area specifically focused on crime reduction. In particular, earning potential through legitimate employment is closely linked to high-school graduation rates. Because people who can earn more money legitimately are less likely to commit crimes, boosting graduation rates ought to decrease crime. RAND tried that theory out, conducting a study in which students got money as an incentive for staying in school. This, indeed, caused graduation rates to rise, and Greenwood calculates that 250 serious crimes could be averted for every $1 million spent on such incentives -- far more bang for your buck than the prison system offers.

Besides jobs and demographic factors outside the scope of public policy (fewer young men would mean fewer criminals), several other factors remain in play. Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri, St. Louis has shown that a surprisingly large component of the decline in murder rates has been a drop in the specific area of "intimate partner homicide," a fact that he attributes both to declining rates of marriage among the young and decreased social tolerance of domestic abuse.

The last major factor is the waning of the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s. Indeed, all indications are that the crime drop would have started substantially sooner were not the long-term trend disrupted by crack's explosion onto the scene. Nevertheless, the country continues to have a serious hard-drugs problem that fuels violent crime through robberies of street-level drug dealers (attractive because they carry cash and work in public places), conflict between drug gangs and crimes committed by addicts to pay for their habits.

More treatment in general could be a big part of the solution, but the corrections system has a role to play here as well. Mark Kleiman, a public-policy professor at UCLA, is a proponent of "testing and sanctions" for offenders on probation or parole. As Kleiman puts it, "We say, 'OK you're now on probation for two years. You're going to come in every two weeks and piss in this bottle, and every time you're dirty we're going to put you away for two days.' ... My guess is that after one or two sessions, people are going to decide that using cocaine is no fun."

At any given time, around 75 percent of the heavy cocaine and heroin users are under the supervision of the criminal-justice system and available for a testing-and-sanctions system. Kleiman calculates that testing and sanctions would reduce the hard-drug market by about 40 percent all told. Ten offenders could be subjected to a tough parole regime for the price of putting one man behind bars, and though testing and sanctions sounds harsh compared with freedom, it looks pretty good compared with prison.

Unfortunately, the empirical data on the crime-prevention effects of graduation incentives, testing-and-sanctions parole, and all other alternatives to incarceration is not quite as thorough as the research on imprisonment itself -- because only mass incarceration has been employed widely enough to be thoroughly researched. The studies that have been conducted thus far, therefore, cannot be regarded as conclusive, though they certainly suggest the existence of a better way.

There was a time when America's incarceration frenzy was good policy, and it was followed by a time in which it was at least sustainable. Today's weak economy, however, has produced a situation in which states often don't have the cash to keep the prisoners they've already got behind bars. That same weak economy has brought the end of several years of welcome decline in crime rates. We can't afford to let crime get out of control again, but we can't afford to control it through incarceration, either. Getting tough sounds good, but America needs a crime-control strategy that actually spends every available dollar as cost-effectively as possible.

You may also like