Crime and Punishment in America: 1999

Policy Reports | Crime

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


  1. The U.S. Department of Justice administers two statistical programs to measure the magnitude, nature and impact of crime in the nation: the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) program and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Crimes reported to state agencies or the FBI - murder/nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny/theft and motor vehicle theft - are compiled in the FBI Index of Crime - part of the UCR program - and are sometimes referred to as "index crimes." The NCVS collects detailed information on crimes from a nationally representative sample of approximately 43,000 households to determine the amount of crime according to victims age 12 and older - not all of whom report the crime to the police. Since fewer than four of every 10 crimes are reported, the NCVS is thought to be the best estimate of the true amount of crime, yet both the UCR and the NCVS undercount crime in America. For example, the NCVS does not measure murder, crimes against those under age 12 or against those in jails and prisons. According to the survey, the rate of violent victimization declined from 1981 to 1986 (a drop of 20 percent) and then rose from 1986 to 1991 (up 15 percent). Because of a survey redesign, the data are not directly comparable with the data collected prior to 1993, but the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) asserts that violent crime victimization rates showed little change from 1992 to 1994, then dropped 10 percent in 1995. Between 1993 and 1998, violent crime has dropped 27 percent and property crime 32 percent. See BJS, Criminal Victimization 1998: Changes 1997-98 with Trends 1993-98, July 1999, NCJ-176353. Overall, however, the numbers of violent crimes have remained high, and the FBI Index of Crime shows that the serious crime rate rose from 14.3 per 1,000 population in 1970 to 22.8 in 1980 before beginning its descent to 14.3 in 1998. The NCVS shows that household willingness to report crime to the police has risen since 1973 from 32.4 percent of crimes to 38.7 percent, nearly a 20 percent increase. See BJS, Special Report, Reporting Crimes to the Police, December 1985, NCJ-99432. Studies show that reporting itself discourages crimes. For example, see Itzhak Goldberg and Frederick C. Nold, "Does Reporting Deter Burglars? An Empirical Analysis of Risk and Return in Crime," Review of Economics and Statistics, 62, August 1980, pp. 424-31. Some of the movement in the FBI numbers on serious crimes no doubt reflects this increased willingness to report to the police, as well as improvements in recording and data management by police organizations. Because of this trend toward better reporting, the 1990s decline may understate the real decline in crime. See Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 1996, pp. 399-400; John J. DiIulio Jr. and Anne Morrison Piehl, "What the Crime Statistics Don't Tell You," Wall Street Journal, January 8, 1997, p. A16; and Steven Levitt, "The Relationship between Crime Reporting and Police: Implications for the Use of Uniform Crime Reports," Journal of Quantitative Criminology 14 (February 1998): 61-82.
  2. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 1997, p. 66.
  3. Ibid.
  4. FBI, UCR 1997 Preliminary Annual Release, May 16, 1999.
  5. BJS, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1997, p. 100.
  6. Ted R. Miller et al., Victim Costs and Consequences: A New Look, National Institute of Justice, February 1996.
  7. BJS, Criminal Victimization 1998, NCJ-176353, July 1999; and DiIulio and Piehl, "What the Crime Statistics Don't Tell You."
  8. BJS, Technical Report, Lifetime Likelihood of Victimization, March 1987, NCJ-104274, p. 2.
  9. FBI, Crime in the United States 1997, p. 6.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Stanton Samenow, a criminal psychologist and interviewer of thousands of criminals, insists, "The criminal is rational, calculating and deliberate in his actions. Criminals know right from wrong.... A habit is not a compulsion. On any occasion, the thief can refrain from stealing if he is in danger of being caught." In Robert James Bidinotto, ed., Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility (Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1994), p. 48.
  12. UCLA professor James Q. Wilson has written, "The average citizen thinks it is obvious that people discovered it is easier to get away with it." James Q. Wilson, Thinking About Crime, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 117. "The risks posed by the criminal enforcement system are notoriously low," wrote economist Kip Viscusi, "and data show that youthful criminals know it." W. Kip Viscusi, "The Risks and Rewards of Criminal Activity: A Comprehensive Test of Criminal Deterrence," Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1986, pp. 317-40. See also the earlier surveys of the literature in Gordon Tullock, "Does Punishment Deter Crime?" The Public Interest, Vol. 36, Summer 1974, pp. 103-11; Morgan O. Reynolds, Crime by Choice (Dallas: Fisher Institute, 1985), ch. 12; Donald E. Lewis, "The General Deterrent Effect of Longer Sentences," British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 26, January 1986, pp. 47-62; Samuel Cameron, "The Economics of Crime Deterrence: A Survey of Theory and Evidence," Kyklos, 41, 1988, pp. 301-23; Bidinotto, ed., Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility; Levitt, "Using Electoral Cycles in Police Hiring to Estimate the Effect of Police on Crime." Steven D. Levitt, "The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation," Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 111, Issue 2, May 1996, pp. 319-51; Isaac Ehrlich, "Crime, Punishment and the Market for Offenses," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 10, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 43-67; Simon Hakim and Yochanan Shachmurove, "Spatial and Temporal Patterns of Commercial Burglaries: The Evidence Examined," American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 55, No. 4 (October 1996), pp. 443-56; and Steven D. Levitt, "Juvenile Crime and Punishment," Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 106, November/December 1998, pp. 1156-85.
  13. Calculated from Appendix, Tables A-2 and A-4.
  14. Statistically, a simple correlation between two variables may range from +1.0 to -1.0, indicating that crime and expected punishment go up and down together perfectly (+1.0) or go up and down in a pattern perfectly opposite from each other (-1.0) or somewhere in between. The simple correlation between each crime and its respective expected punishment is zero for murder, -.47 for rape, -.63 for aggravated assault, -.86 for robbery and -.86 for burglary. All correlations but murder are negative and therefore consistent with the theory that punishment deters, and the correlations are most significant for robbery and burglary, increasing our confidence that crimes with an obvious economic motive are particularly sensitive to expected punishment. If each crime rate is regressed on its respective expected punishment and a time trend to account for other determinants of crime, the time trend is strongly positive for crimes of violence and virtually zero for burglary. The punishment impact remains strongest for burglary in these regressions.
  15. Limited data restrict the calculation of detailed probabilities to a few years (the most recent calculation largely relies on 1994 data), but even the limited calculations that are possible illustrate how these probabilities result in low odds of prison time and therefore low expected punishment.
  16. This felony conviction rate means that 61 percent of burglary arrests result in a felony conviction (4.2 ÷ 6.9). A more recent BJS study found an even lower 41 percent of burglary felony arrests result in a felony conviction. See BJS, Felony Sentences in State Courts, 1996, May 1999, NCJ-173939, p. 9.
  17. Morgan O. Reynolds, "Why Does Crime Pay?" NCPA Policy Backgrounder No. 110, National Center for Policy Analysis, November 6, 1992, p. 3.
  18. On the rationality of burlgars, see the interviews with over 100 active burglars in Richard T. Wright and Scott H. Decker, Burglars on the Job (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994).
  19. The most recent criminal justice probabilities shown in Table I are available only for 1990 and 1994. Fortunately, we do not need such detail to calculate expected punishment. We require only three numbers for each type of crime: (1) the number of new convicts the courts sent to federal and state prisons for those crimes, (2) the number of those crimes reported to the police and (3) the median prison time served by those released from prison. Mathematically, the probability of prison equals the percentage of crimes cleared by arrest multiplied by the ratio of prosecutions to arrests multiplied by the ratio of convictions to prosecutions multiplied by the ratio of those sent to prison to total convictions; that is, the ratio of new prisoners to number of crimes. Reasonable approximations for these data are available in selected years all the way back to 1950, while the more abundant data since 1985 allow more reliable calculation of expected punishment.
  20. The average sentence served is more relevant to habitual criminals, while the median is more appropriate for offenders with less substantial criminal records and less heinous crimes. Average time served is calculated by adding all the time served for index crimes and dividing by the number of crimes reported. Median time served is calculated by arranging the time served in order from shortest to longest; the median is the middle value, with half below and half above. If average time served is used as the measure of punishment severity, then the expected cost of punishment to criminals is substantially higher. The average time served in prison exceeds the median time served because the average is sensitive to the minority of prisoners released after serving extremely long sentences. The median, by contrast, is insensitive to the longest imprisonments. In 1985 the average time served exceeded the median time by about 30 percent and in 1995 by 40 percent, due to tougher sentencing policies.
  21. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s expanded the rights of criminal suspects and had substantial detrimental effects on law enforcement productivity, permanently reducing the arrest clearance rate. Changes in these rules could dramatically increase police productivity and diminish crime without additional taxpayer expense or harm to civil liberties. See, for example, Paul Cassell, "Handcuffing the Cops: Miranda's Harmful Effects on Law Enforcement," NCPA Policy Report No. 218, August 1998, National Center for Policy Analysis.
  22. Anne Morrison Piehl and John J. DiIulio Jr., "Does Prison Pay? Revisited," Brookings Review, Winter 1995, pp. 21-25; also see William J. Bennett, John J. DiIulio Jr. and John P. Walters, Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America's War Against Crime and Drugs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), pp. 112-117.
  23. Steven D. Levitt, "The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation," Quarterly Journal of Economics, May 1996, pp. 319-51.
  24. Prisons, however, do not pay for themselves with many drug offenders, who have grown to 30 percent of new state prisoners, up from 7 percent in 1980. There is no social benefit for incarcerating drug dealers, according to Piehl and DiIulio, because they are readily replaced in the drug marketplace. Hence, the researchers calculate that prisons cannot pass a cost-benefit test for about one in four prisoners.
  25. Stephen Klein and Michael Caggiano, Policy Implications and Recidivism (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 1986); and Joan Petersilia et al., Prison Versus Probation (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 1986).
  26. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 1988, p. 658.
  27. Allen Beck, Recidivism of Young Parolees (Washington, D.C.: BJS, 1987). Also see "The Case for More Incarceration," Office of Policy Development, U.S. Department of Justice, in Bidinotto, ed., Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility.
  28. Quoted in Bidinotto, Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, p. 214. Also see George Allen, "The Courage of Our Convictions: The Abolition of Parole Will Save Lives and Money," Policy Review, Spring 1995, pp. 4-7.
  29. Bennett, DiIulio, and Walters, Body Count, p. 116. A recent Rand Corp. study, for example, finds that mandatory long-term prison sentences for low-level cocaine users and dealers are not cost effective compared to judicial discretion to order offenders to serve shorter terms and undergo treatment. Full text at http://www.Rand.Org/publications/RB/RB6003.
  30. Gary W. Bowman, Simon Hakim and Paul Seidenstat, eds., Privatizing Correctional Institutions (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1993); and Charles W. Thomas, Director, Private Corrections Project, Center for Studies in Criminology and Law, University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla., Private Adult Correctional Facility Census, 10th ed., March 15, 1997, p. vi.
  31. For a comparison of the quality of private and public prisons, see Charles H. Logan, "Well Kept: Comparing Quality of Confinement in Private and Public Prisons," in Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 83, No. 3, Fall 1992, pp. 577-613. In a comparison of privately and publicly operated corrections facilities in Kentucky and Massachusetts, both staff and inmates generally gave higher ratings to the services and programs at the privately operated facilities, where escape rates also were lower and disturbances fewer. See Dana C. Joel, "The Privatization of Secure Adult Prisons: Issues and Evidence," in Bowman, Hakim and Seidenstat, eds., Privatizing Correctional Institutions.
  32. Bruce Benson, The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State (San Franciso: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1990), p. 345.
  33. Thomas, Private Adult Correctional Facility Census, July 25, 1998;
  34. Wall Street Journal, June 10, 1993, p. B2.
  35. Thomas, Private Adult Correctional Facility Census, p. vi.
  36. CCA offered to operate the entire prison system for the state of Tennessee in the 1980s, but the state government declined the proposal. See Bowman, Hakim and Seidenstat, eds., Privatizing Correctional Institutions, p. 29. It is on the public agenda once again, at this writing, with support from the governor and many other public officials.
  37. Charles H. Logan, Private Prisons: Cons and Pros (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).
  38. Author's telephone conversation with CCA Program Director, Houston, Texas, March 14, 1995.
  39. Ibid. For the hidden costs of public corrections, see Charles H. Logan and Bill W. McGriff, "Comparing Costs of Public and Private Prisons: A Case Study," National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, No. 216, September/October 1989. See Thomas, Private Adult Correctional Facility Census, pp. vi-viii, for a recent discussion of government reports that private cost savings of 10-20 percent are typical.
  40. Charles W. Thomas, "Testimony Regarding Correctional Privatization before the Little Hoover Commission," Sacramento, Calif., August 21, 1997; also see Eric Bates, "Private Prisons," The Nation, January 5, 1998, pp. 11-18.
  41. For example, see Lonn Lanza-Kaduce and Karen F. Parker, "A Comparative Recidivism Analysis of Releasees from Private and Public Prisons in Florida," Private Corrections Project, Center for Studies in Criminology and Law, University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla., mimeo, 1998.
  42. U.S. General Accounting Office, "Private and Public Prisons: Studies Comparing Operational Costs and/or Quality of Service," GAO/GGD-96-158, a report to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Crime, August, 1996.
  43. Charles W. Thomas, letter to Rep. Bill McCollum, Chair, U.S. House Subcommittee on Crime, September 1, 1996; also see Charles W. Thomas, "Correctional Privatization: The Issues and the Evidence," paper presented at the Privatization of Correctional Services Conference, sponsored by the Fraser Institute, Toronto, Canada, July 10-11, 1996; and Private Adult Correctional Facility Census, 10th ed., Private Corrections Project, Center for Studies in Criminology and Law, University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla., March 15, 1997, pp. vii-viii.
  44. Richard Moran, "A Third Option: Nonprofit Prisons," New York Times, August 23, 1997.
  45. Alexis M. Durham, "The Future of Correctional Privatization: Lessons from the Past," in Bowman, Hakim and Seidenstat, eds., Privatizing Correctional Institutions, p. 39.
  46. Barbara Auerbach, "Federal Government Involvement in Private Sector Partnerships in Prison Industries," in Bowman, Hakim and Seidenstat, eds., Privatizing Correctional Institutions, pp. 91-104.
  47. Bruce Fein and Edwin Meese III, "Have to Fight Crime within Our Limited Means," Houston Chronicle, May 3, 1989, p. 29A.
  48. James K. Stewart, Director, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, July 26, 1989.
  49. See Jack Eckerd, "Responsibility, Love and Privatization: A Businessman's Guide to Criminal Rehabilitation," Policy Review, 45, Summer 1988, p. 52; and Judith Schloegel, "PRIDE of Florida: A Working Model for Inmates," in Bowman, Hakim and Seidenstat, eds., Privatizing Correctional Institutions, pp. 105-11. PRIDE is an acronym for Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises.
  50. Andrew Peyton Thomas, Crime and the Sacking of America (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1994), p. 121.
  51. American Bar Association's Subcommittee on Correctional Industries, "Inmate Labor in America's Correctional Facilites," discussion draft, April 1998, Executive Summary.
  52. Ibid., p. 13.
  53. Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, Quarterly Report, American Correctional Association, Laurel, Md., March 1, 1997.
  54. Business Week, February 17, 1992, p. 42.
  55. "Governor Praises Heatron, Zephyr," Leavenworth (Kan.) Times, October 7, 1992, p. A1.
  56. Also see Rod Miller, George E. Sexton and Victor J. Jacobsen, "Making Jails Productive," National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, NCJ-132396, October 1991; and "Private Sector Prison Industries" and "Prison-Based Joint Ventures," both by Criminal Justice Associates, Philadelphia, Pa., December 7, 1990.
  57. For detailed arguments, see Morgan O. Reynolds, "Factories Behind Bars," NCPA Policy Report No. 206, September 1996. Also see "Business and Labor Support for Private Sector Employing Prison Inmates Is Strong in Iowa," press release, April 30, 1997, Enterprise Prison Institute, Washington, D.C.; and Greg Wees, "Prison Industries: Public Agencies and Private Industry Continue to Form Working Partnerships" and "Prison Industries 1997: Outside Federal System, Inmate-Employees Remain an Elite Group," Corrections Compendium, June 1997, pp. 1-4, 10-11; and Inmate Labor in America's Correctional Facilities, a Preliminary Report of the American Bar Association's Subcommittee on Correctional Industries, April 1998.
  58. For more ideas on privatization, see Morgan O. Reynolds, "Using the Private Sector to Deter Crime," NCPA Policy Report No. 181, March 1994; Bruce L. Benson, Privatization in Criminal Justice: Real Alternatives to Ineffective Big-Government Solutions for Crime Problems, Oakland, Calif.: Independent Institute, forthcoming.

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