Crime and Punishment in America: 1998

Policy Reports | Crime

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

Case Study: California vs. Texas

"During the 1980s, California's prison population went from below the national average to above, while Texas' dropped from above the national average to below."The two most populous states, California and Texas, together account for nearly one in four inmates in the country, with 153,010 and 136,599 prisoners, respectively, as of June 30, 1997. These two states followed opposite paths during the 1980s and to some extent in the 1990s, with different impacts on the amount of serious crime.

"During this period, serious crime fell in California and rose in Texas." 
In 1980, the California state prison population (98 per 100,000 population) was 30 percent below the national average and its rate of violent crime and burglary was 40 percent above the national average. In Texas, by contrast, the prison population (210 per 100,000 population) was 50 percent above the national average and its serious crime rate only 5 percent above the national average [see Figures IX and X]. By the end of the 1980s, California's state prison population was 9 percent above the national average and its serious crime rate had declined to 22 percent above the national average [see Figure X]. In Texas, meanwhile, the state prison population had fallen 5 percent below the national average and its rate of serious crime had jumped to 38 percent above the national average.

"Texas went on a prison-building spree after 1990 and nearly tripled its prison population."The ratio of prisoners to Texas residents remained below the national average in the late 1980s, primarily due to federal court orders and prison capacity constraints. During the 1990s, however, Texas went on a building spree and nearly tripled its prison population. At 677 prisoners per 100,000 population, Texas had the highest number of inmates per resident at midyear 1997. (Louisiana stood second at 651 and Oklahoma was third at 599; lowest was North Dakota at 104, or only 15 percent of Texas' prison rate.) [See Figure XI.]

"In the 1990s, Texas was able to reduce its crime rate 37 percent, while the California rate declined 29 percent."Has crime in Texas declined? Definitely. As Figure XII shows, Texas was able to reduce its rate of violent crimes and burglaries by 37 percent, while in California the rate declined 29 percent. By contrast, between 1990 and 1997 the national rate of serious crime fell only 23 percent. When compared to 1990 rates, the lower 1997 crime rates in Texas imply that 1,400 fewer Texans were murdered, violent felony crimes fell by 30,000 and 453,000 fewer index crimes were reported to the police. Former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier has attributed the continuing decline in crime in his city to "increased law enforcement and an increase in state action on prisons and paroles."

"California and Texas, the two most populous states, followed opposite paths during the 1980s and 1990s, with very different results.""Root causes" of crime did not change in Houston or Texas, although the economy has strengthened in recent years and unemployment has dropped to the national average. Despite liberal rhetoric to the contrary, factors like poverty, a poor economy, low wage or income growth and high unemployment do not cause crime. If anything, the reverse is true: crime causes poverty and economic stagnation. None of the unpleasant social or demographic facts about Texas have changed: high school dropout rates remain at about 20 percent and Texas ranks sixth among the states in the percent of the population living in poverty (17.4 percent in 1995), tenth in the percent of children living in poverty (23.1 percent in 1995) and fifth in food stamp recipients as a percent of the population (13.7 percent in 1995).

The Cost of Not Building Prisons

"Incarcerating an additional prisoner yields a social benefit more than twice the cost of imprisonment."

Although the cost of building and maintaining more prisons is high, the cost of not doing so appears to be higher. A number of researchers have found that keeping most prisoners behind bars lowers their cost to society.21

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics figures from a few years ago showed that it cost under $16,000 per year to keep a prisoner in state or federal prison. Hidden and indirect expenses to taxpayers may inflate this figure to $20,000 or $25,000 per year.
  • In the late 1970s, the Rand Corporation found in prisoner surveys in Texas, Michigan and California that the median number of nondrug crimes committed by prisoners the year before they were incarcerated was 15; similar surveys in Wisconsin in 1990 found 12 nondrug crimes, as did a 1993 New Jersey survey.
  • Based on Vanderbilt University management professor Mark Cohen's analysis of jury awards, the average annual social damage prevented by incarcerating a newly admitted New Jersey criminal is $1.6 million and the median damage prevented is $70,098.
  • A study of 12 states that were forced by court orders to reduce levels of imprisonment found that incarcerating one additional prisoner reduces the number of crimes by approximately 15 per year, the majority of them property crimes, and yields a social benefit of at least $53,900 annually.22

Thus, even at $25,000 a year, keeping the "average" criminal in prison is worthwhile, since on the streets he would commit an average of 12 or more nondrug crimes each year. For serious crimes, therefore, imprisonment pays for itself.23 The researchers measured benefits only in terms of crime prevention and ignored retributive, deterrent and rehabilitative benefits. Thus they underestimated the benefits of prison to society.

Moreover, the failure to keep offenders in prison once they are there is another hazard created by a lack of prison space, and early release often leads to more crime.

  • A Rand Corporation survey of former inmates in Texas found that 60 percent were rearrested within three years of their release and 40 percent of those were reconvicted.
  • A survey of 11 states showed that 62 percent of all released prisoners were rearrested within three years, 47 percent were reconvicted and 41 percent were reincarcerated.
  • A study of 22 states for the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) found that 69 percent of young adults (ages 17-22) released from prison in 1978 were rearrested within six years, after committing an average of 13 new crimes.

As BJS statistician Patrick Langan pointed out in Science, whatever the causes, in 1989 there were an estimated 66,000 fewer rapes, 323,000 fewer robberies, 380,000 fewer assaults and 3.3 million fewer burglaries than there would have been if the crime rate had been at the 1973 level. If only one-half or even one-fourth of the reductions resulted from increased incarceration, imprisonment has reduced crime significantly. Few would deny that "Still, a great deal of research remains to be done on the social costs and benefits of imprisonment and other sentencing options."

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