Cops Triumphing over Crooks

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Who's winning lately, the cops or the crooks? Fortunately, law enforcement is, and that means we're all safer.

The improvements in daily living are pretty obvious in our great cities, and even in depressed neighborhoods, chaos, crime and open-air drug markets are in retreat. Talk about improving the environment! Real jobs, coherent family living, and civilization itself depend on a tolerable degree of protection of life and property. And the thin blue line has been working lately.

Nationally, the overall rate of serious crime is at a 25-year low. The murder rate is lower than in the 1970s. In New York City, it is as low as in the 1960s. The FBI's crime statistics show that every category of violent crime has decreased since 1993.

A major reason for the one-third crime slide during the 1990s is that crime has become more expensive for adult perpetrators. The likelihood of serving prison time for committing a serious violent crime or a burglary has increased substantially. According to a new study from the National Center for Policy Analysis:

Murder has dropped 30 percent as the probability of going to prison for murder has risen 53 percent,

Rape has decreased 14 percent as the probability of imprisonment has increased 12 percent,

Robbery has decreased 29 percent as the probability of imprisonment has increased 28 percent,

Burglary has decreased 18 percent as the probability of imprisonment has increased 14 percent.
Moreover, once in prison, criminals are staying there longer. The median time served by those released recently has risen since 1993 for every category of serious crime except aggravated assault.

Are these trends related? Common sense says yes, even if most sociologists continue to deny it. Criminals choose whether to commit specific crimes or not, and they've decided on fewer crimes, a pretty rational response.

Meanwhile, the prison and jail population has doubled since the mid-1980s to 1.8 million. Nobody's really happy about this but at least the expense has improved public safety. We now spend $120 billion a year on the justice system, or, over $1,000 in taxes per household each year. If we're going to further depress the crime rate, the justice system has to make crime even less profitable by further increases in expected punishment. Unfortunately, that means more prison beds.

But a tough approach pays, especially over the long run. As the odds worsen for criminals, crime declines and the same number of arrests and convictions further raise the odds against criminals.

Although the cost of building and maintaining more prisons is high, the cost of not doing so appears to be higher. One study found that each additional prisoner reduces the number of non-drug crimes by approximately 15 per year, a social benefit of $53,000 annually, or more. Even at $25,000-$30,000 a year, the taxpayers' cost of keeping the average criminal locked up is worthwhile.

The annual cost of lock-ups can be reduced by more competition in their supply. A handful of academic studies shows not only that private prisons save taxpayers money but that they also provide superior performance in almost every way, including lower recidivism among inmates released from private facilities.

A third option, yet untested, is to contract out to nonprofit groups, including faith-based prison operators. As Professor Richard Moran of Holyoke College says, "A private, not-for-profit foundation is in the best position to organize a prison around a set of principles intended to reshape criminals into honest, productive citizens." Despite our lack of a "model" or successful prison, no jurisdiction or politician has yet had the courage or good sense to try something new in jail suppliers, despite the obvious successes non-governmental and faith-based hospitals, schools and juvenile programs have had.

Another cost saver would be to engage prisoners in productive work so that they pay more of their own way, repay victims and support their own families. Prisons today reek of idleness. The only way to get prisoners off welfare on a mass basis is to recruit the private sector. Prison-run work programs have been failures. Our aim should be to propel offenders into, rather than away from, successful participation in the labor force.

Bill McCollum (R, FL), chairman of the House Judiciary's crime committee, says, "We can't overemphasize how important this is," and he recently introduced H.R. 4100, the so-called Free Market Prison Industries Reform Act of 1998, to make it easier to hire prisoners. It would repeal the federal law which bans interstate commerce in prison-made goods and switch the Federal Prison Industries from its socialist format to private production for the open market. Its passage would be a wonderful step toward rationality in our prison policies.