Taking the Profit Out of Crime

Commentary by Pete du Pont

The Federal Bureau of Investigation released its latest figures on national crime rates the other day. Among the good news was that the overall serious crime rate is at its lowest point in nearly two decades.

The rate drop was understandably front-page news in many papers across the country. With the recent spate of high-profile mass shootings, many Americans have become shell shocked into thinking that crime is out of control. What was surprising, however, was that the so-called straight news stories were drenched with analysis, which claimed that the reason behind the reduction in crime was an utter mystery.

This trend of falling crime rates has bewildered some in the media for quite awhile now. Take the New York Times' Fox Butterfield, for example, who earlier this year fretted that, "the state prison population has been growing at 7 percent annually since 1990, though the crime rate has fallen for seven straight years."

As they say, the correlation is so strong only an expert could miss it.

Responding to the good news, Attorney General Janet Reno said, "There's no one reason as to why crime has fallen in recent years. It's a combination of factors . . .." She included in those factors more police officers and prosecutions, tougher sentencing, better prevention programs, and a healthy economy.

The attorney general is right in asserting that there are a number of factors - both economic and criminal - that account for the decline. But what she didn't say is that liberal decision-makers were wrong on crime for years and we are just now overcoming some of the disastrous consequences of their actions.

In the '60s and '70s liberal elites came to believe that offenders should not be punished for committing crimes. This view transformed the justice system from a tolerably efficient enforcement mechanism into a bewildering array of criminal privileges, exclusionary rules, reversals and delays that made it increasingly difficult to arrest, prosecute and punish the guilty. It also made crime pay all too well, as the criminal justice system became too lenient.

As a result, while the number of serious crimes reported to the police nearly tripled between 1960 and 1970 - rising from 1 million to 2.9 million - the number of new convictions to prison for serious crimes of violence and burglary actually fell from 40,000 in 1960 to 37,000 in 1970. And the probability of imprisonment for committing a serious crime nearly collapsed, plunging from 3.6 per 100 serious crimes in 1960 to only 1.3 per 100 in 1970. The system became a joke; but law-abiding citizens weren't laughing. As economist Adam Smith wrote 240 years ago, "Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent."

Fed up, we began to get tough on crime in the 1980s and 1990s as we restored the credibility of the criminal justice system. One major way we have done that, according to the annual report recently released by my colleague at the National Center for Policy Analysis, Morgan Reynolds, is a steady increase throughout the last two decades in the likelihood of going to prison for a crime and staying there.

Reynolds uses "expected punishment" to measure the potential cost to a criminal of committing a crime. Expected punishment is defined as "the length of time in prison a typical criminal can expect to serve per crime, given the probabilities of being apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison."

The good news is that expected punishment continues to increase. The bad news is that it is still amazingly low. Between 1980 and 1997 (the latest year for which prison data are available), expected punishment for murder and rape nearly tripled, up to 41 months and 128 days respectively. During the same period, a person's expected punishment for robbery increased 70 percent to 59 days. Expected punishment for aggravated assault and burglary more than doubled to 18 days and 9 days respectively.

As Ms. Reno says, there is no one reason crime has fallen, but there is little doubt that restoring credibility to the criminal justice system has been the biggest single reason. Criminals are not committing crimes when they're locked up.

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. The NCPA is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, with an office in Washington, D.C.