Punishment Up, Crime Down

Commentary by Pete du Pont
Tough new sentencing laws have succeeded in making criminals stay longer in prison, giving them more leisure time to contemplate the errors of their ways.

A new Department of Justice report shows that the average time served by violent criminals in state prisons rose to 49 months in 1997 from only 43 months in 1993. The proportion of sentences served by violent criminals increased to 54 percent from 47 percent.

Among all prisoners released, the average time served increased to 25 months in 1996 from 22 months in 1990. The number of convicts released slumped to 31 per 100 state prisoners in 1996 from 37 per 100 in 1990. As more defendants get convicted under new "truth in sentencing" laws which usually require convicts to serve 85 percent of their sentence, criminal sabbatical leaves will lengthen even further.

Jane Q. Public might say, "Well, too bad for them, these increases in prison time may be small but they're in the right direction." The law enforcement community concurs but the elite press and academy balk. Fox Butterfield of the New York Times, for example, frets that the increased time reflects "harsher treatment of criminals by prosecutors, judges and juries." Even worse, "the state prison population has been growing at 7 percent annually since 1990, though the crime rate has fallen for seven straight years."

The attempt at paradox is unwarranted. No amount of sociological mumbo jumbo can cover up the cause and effect at work here: crime is falling because prisons are filling. The new get-tough attitude is bringing predictable results.

Such common sense, however, is attacked by Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who labels the connection between falling crime and filling prisons as "too simplistic." Yet in a better age, pointing out the obvious was the first duty of a scientist.

Today's experts, however, like complicated stuff. That's why they're experts-clever and convoluted explanations are praiseworthy. "There's been a rising revulsion to personal violence in those neighborhoods," says Eric Monkkonen, a UCLA criminologist. "And violent young men are no longer honorable." Huh? When were they ever "honorable"? And isn't this cultural shift, if true, a consequence of more and more punks cooling their heels in orange jumpsuits, under lock and key?

Evidence abounds that law-abiding citizens respond to incentives. Why would criminals be different? We know that criminals avoid knowingly committing a crime right in front of the thin blue line. That explains why the police interrupt so few crimes in progress. Or, consider that prison wardens and sheriffs manage 1.8 million inmates daily, some of them very violent, without incident. How? Because criminals respond to incentives-they heed disciplinary measures.

Interviews with criminals consistently show that they reason and act like other human beings. Criminologists Richard Wright and Scott Decker interviewed 105 active, nonincarcerated residential burglars in St. Louis, Mo., and burglar No. 013 said, "After my eight years for robbery, I told myself then, I'll never do another robbery. I was locked up with so many guys doin' 25 to 30 years for robbery. I think that's what made me stick to burglaries, because I learned that a crime committed with a weapon will get you a lot of time."

Not so long ago, many American courts endorsed the sociological proposition that democratic societies should stress rehabilitation of the offender. Punishment was deemed a cruel and outmoded approach to crime prevention. But the public never got on board. Almost uniformly across groups, public opinion endorses punishment. More than three-quarters of the public believe that punishment is the primary justification for sentencing. More than 70 percent believe that incapacitation is the only sure way to prevent future crimes, and more than three-quarters believe that the courts are too easy on criminals. Three-quarters also favor the death penalty for first-degree murder.

The public retains a soft spot for rehabilitation, more for young offenders than adults. This view obviously has some merit. Each of us is a member of society, and we owe much of what we are to others who have influenced, guided and civilized us. But we must reject proposals for suppressing crime and criminals that do not take individual will and motivation into account. A criminal must become dissatisfied with his or her life for change to occur. Reform requires that a criminal, in the end, accept full responsibility for his or her actions.

What criminals need most is evidence that their crimes do not pay. Bad decision, bad consequences. At public insistence, the justice system has begun to do its duty, unpleasant though it may be. And, as the statistics show, it is working.

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.