Crime and Punishment in America: 1999

Policy Reports | Crime

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

Expected Punishment and the Crime Rate

Figure VIII - Crime and Punishment%2C Selected Years%2C 1950-1998

The serious crime rate exploded during the 1960s and 1970s, rising from only five per 1,000 population 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.

"Since 1980 the serious crime rate has dropped by almost 40 percent, as expected punishment has more than doubled."

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 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/or do not result in any prison time served (although the latter fact may be consistent with justice for most property crimes).

Table IV - Expected Prison Time for Serious Crime%2C Selected Years%2C 1950-1997

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.20

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