Crime and Punishment in America: 1999

Studies | Crime

No. 229
Friday, October 01, 1999
by Morgan O. Reynolds


Executive Summary

Serious crime in the United States continued to fall in 1998. Whether measured as a rate (number of crimes per capita) or in absolute terms, every category of violent crime and burglary decreased from 1997.

  • The overall rate of serious crime fell to a 25-year low.
  • The murder rate dropped by 8 percent from 1997 and finally slumped to the rates of the late 1960s, even falling below the average murder rate during this entire century.
  • The rates for rape and aggravated assault fell by 5 percent each, for robbery by 11 percent and for burglary by 7 percent.
  • The actual number of murders reported in 1998 was the lowest in more than two decades.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted annually by the Justice Department since 1973, also found the lowest crime rates since the survey began. This survey - which measures crimes by asking randomly selected people whether they have been victims - usually finds a higher rate because fewer than four of every 10 crimes are reported to the police.

Not by coincidence, the likelihood that a criminal will be punished for a serious crime and the amount of time a criminal is likely to spend in prison are higher today than they have been since the 1970s.

What happened in 1998 continued a trend first evidenced in the 1980s, a trend that accelerated in the '90s: there is less crime in the United States, as measured by both the crime rate and the actual number of crimes. Following a fourfold jump in crimes of violence-murder, rape, robbery and serious assaults-and burglary during the 1960s and 1970s, serious crime reported to the police stabilized and then fell.

Over the period, wages have gone up and unemployment has gone down, which has had some impact in reducing crime, but a major reason for the reduction is that crime has become more costly to the perpetrators. The likelihood of going to prison for committing any type of major crime has increased substantially. In 1997, the latest year for which prison data are available, the probability of going to prison for murder rose 13 percent from 1996, for rape 1 percent, for robbery 7 percent and for aggravated assault 11 percent; the probability of going to prison for burglary remained the same. This also is the continuation of a trend. Since 1993:

  • The murder rate has dropped 34 percent, as the probability of going to prison for murder has risen 54 percent.
  • Rape has decreased 17 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 20 percent.
  • Robbery has decreased 35 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 24 percent.
  • Aggravated assault has decreased 18 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 26 percent.
  • Burglary has decreased 22 percent, as the probability of prison has increased 21 percent.

Moreover, once in prison criminals are staying longer. Compared to the 1980s, the median prison sentence served by prisoners released in the 1990s has risen for every category of serious crime except aggravated assault.

The best overall measure of the potential cost to a criminal of committing crimes is "expected punishment." Roughly speaking, expected punishment is the number of days in prison a typical criminal can expect to serve per crime, as determined by the probabilities of being apprehended, prosecuted, convicted and going to prison, and the median months served for each crime. In 1997 expected punishment continued to increase, rising 20 percent for aggravated assault, 13 percent each for murder and robbery and negligible amounts for rape and burglary compared to 1996. Between 1980 and 1997, expected punishment:

  • for murder nearly tripled from 14 months to 41 months.
  • for rape tripled to 128 days.
  • for robbery increased by 70 percent to 59 days.
  • for serious assault more than doubled to 18 days.
  • for burglary more than doubled from 4 days to 9 days.

Despite these increases, it's still amazing how low expected punishment is. As prosecutors point out, it's hard to get to prison.

Evidence shows that potential criminals respond to incentives. Crime decreases when expected punishment increases, and vice versa. Between 1950 and 1980, expected punishment declined more or less continuously from an average of seven weeks for every serious crime committed to only 10 days - an 80 percent drop. In response, the serious crime rate more than quadrupled during those years. In the 1980s, expected punishment began to increase, accompanied by the leveling off and then decline in the serious crime rate. Between 1980 and 1997, expected punishment for serious crimes increased from 10 to 25 prison days, a 150 percent increase, and serious crime declined.

If we are to succeed in achieving an even lower crime rate, we must continue to make crime less profitable by further increasing expected punishment. To achieve that goal there are several options. Expected punishment will increase as we:

  • increase the proportion of reported crimes cleared by arrest.
  • increase the proportion of the accused who are prosecuted.
  • increase the proportion of those prosecuted who are convicted.
  • increase the fraction of those convicted who are sentenced to prison.
  • increase the average prison time served.

All these options 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. 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.

Although the cost of building and maintaining more prisons is high, the cost of not doing so appears to be higher. One study found that each additional prisoner incarcerated reduces the number of crimes by approximately 15 per year, and yields a social benefit of at least $53,900 annually. Thus, even at $25,000 a year, the cost of keeping the average criminal in prison is worthwhile.


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