Crime and Punishment in America: 1998

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 219
Thursday, September 24, 1998
by Morgan O. Reynolds

Confirming the Effect on Clearance Rates

The serious crime rate exploded during the 1960s and 1970s, rising from only five per 1,000 per year to more than 22, while the expected punishment per crime plunged from 50 prison days in 1950 to only 10 days in 1970 [see Figure VIII]. In the midst of the 1960s and 1970s crime explosion, the number of commitments by courts for serious predatory crimes actually fell from 40,000 in 1960 to 37,000 in 1970 as the number of serious crimes reported to police nearly tripled from 1 million to 2.9 million. As a result, the probability of imprisonment for committing a serious crime reported to the police nearly collapsed, plunging from 3.6 percent per crime in 1960 to 1.3 percent in 1970, as shown in Table IV.

Expected punishment per reported serious crime remained low until the early 1980s because prison time fell while the probability of going to prison began to increase, leaving expected punishment essentially unchanged. Sentences served were shorter primarily because of court orders and prison capacity constraints that kept the criminal justice door revolving rapidly. Not until the mid-1980s did expected punishment begin to rise for predatory crimes. Yet expected punishment in the 1990s remains well below the 30 days of 1960 and the 50 days of 1950.

Between 1985 and 1996, the overall probability of going to prison for all index crimes, including larceny/theft and motor vehicle theft, increased from 0.8 percent to 1.2 percent. The expected punishment for property crimes increased about 20 percent, for violent crimes about 30 percent. Yet criminals still can expect to spend only about two days in prison per property crime. The primary reason for the low expected punishment rate is that the vast majority of reported property crimes are not cleared by an arrest and do not result in any prison time served (although the latter fact may be consistent with justice for many property crimes).

Much of the recent increase in expected punishment results from an increase in the probability of going to prison, especially the higher odds of being prosecuted, convicted and sent to prison following an arrest. In the last 10 years, prisoners served longer sentences too. During that period, the median time for those serving a prison term for a violent index crime increased from 20 months to 25 months while the median time served for property offenders remained flat at 12 months.

How to Reduce Crime Further

"A tough approach pays, especially over the long run."If we are to succeed in lowering the crime rate to, say, the level of the 1950s, we must create at least as much deterrence as existed then. For example, robbers served expected median prison terms of 140 days in 1950 vs. 52 days in 1996. Getting back to 1950 punishment for robbery would require nearly tripling the expected punishment per robbery. The three ways of doing so are to:

  • increase the proportion of reported robberies cleared by arrest from 27 to 73 percent,
  • increase the proportion of the accused who are prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned from 34 to 92 percent, or
  • increase the median prison time served by robbers from 27 to 73 months.

All three are expensive in the short run. A higher arrest rate requires more money for police staffing, equipment and procedures. Higher conviction and sentencing rates require more resources for prosecution and criminal courts. All three require more prison space for robbers. But a tough approach pays, especially over the long run. As the odds worsen for criminals, crimes decline and the same numbers of arrests and convictions begin to reduce the odds favoring criminals.

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