Keeping the Crime Rate on a Downward Path

Commentary by Pete du Pont

A headline in a recent Sunday New York Times read "Crime keeps on falling, but prisons keep on filling." The fact is crime keeps on falling because prisons keep on filling.

New FBI statistics say crime dropped last year for the fifth year in a row, and the murder rate was the lowest in more than 25 years. Violent crimes fell by 6.5 percent, to the lowest rate since 1987. Another report said juvenile crime fell by 9.2 percent.

Why? As with most social phenomena, many factors are involved, but there is a wealth of evidence pointing to two major reasons. First, the likelihood of being punished for a crime has been increasing, and continues to increase. Second, more criminals are being locked up for longer periods of time.

Now that the crime rate is falling, if we want that trend to continue we must expect the prison population to grow even further, at least for a time. If a truck starts hurtling down a steep grade, it takes less energy to stop it just after it begins its descent than it does 200 yards farther down the hill. The same holds true for crime - and we didn't start applying the brakes for an alarming amount of time.

In a recent paper for Britain's Institute of Economic Affairs, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute compared imprisonment and crime in England with imprisonment and crime in the United States. In England, he noted, the risk of going to prison for committing a crime fell by about 80 percent over a period of 40 years, and the English crime rate rose gradually. By contrast, in the United States it took just 10 years for the risk of going to prison to drop 64 percent, and the American crime rate shot up.

Professor Murray made the point that the drop in punishment in the United States initially had nothing to do with a lack of prison space, but was the result of a conscious change in public policy. Big mistake. When the U.S. finally acted, it took huge increases in imprisonment just to make the risk of imprisonment keep up with the continuing increases in crime.

"It is easy to maintain a low crime rate and a high risk of imprisonment," Professor Murray said. "It is agonizingly difficult to try to reestablish a high rate of imprisonment after crime has been allowed to get out of hand."

Morgan Reynolds of the National Center for Policy Analysis has tracked crime and punishment in the United States for many years, and his findings coincide with those of Charles Murray. Professor Reynolds' calculations of "expected punishment" - the probability of going to prison for a crime given the chances of being apprehended, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced and given the median sentence for the crime - demonstrate that the U.S. crime rate didn't start falling until after expected punishment had begun rising in the mid-1980s.

Professor Murray suggested that the American experience could teach the rest of the world three lessons about imprisonment. One, when crime is low and stable, it is a catastrophe to stop locking people up. Two, imprisonment can stop a rising crime rate and then begin to push it down - but it takes time. Three, prison is no panacea.

The third lesson is important because there is no magic bullet that is going to erase crime. All prison can do is provide some protection for law-abiding people against predators.

The new crime figures were accompanied in many cases by warnings that the relief may be only temporary because the number of male teenagers - those most likely to commit crimes - is going to increase early in the next century. Certainly a small percentage of these youths will be criminals no matter what the consequences. But there is a good chance that many others can be deterred, and both they and their potential victims spared. For this to happen, these youths must conclude that, given the expected punishment, crime does not pay.