Crime and Punishment in America: 1999

Policy Reports | Crime

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

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, especially since our society today has far more illegitimacy, single parenting and negative family conditions. Robbers, for example, served expected median prison terms of 140 days in 1950 vs. 59 days in 1997. Getting back to 1950 punishment for robbery would require more than doubling the expected punishment per robbery. The three ways of doing so are to:

  • increase the proportion of reported robberies cleared by arrest from 26.3 to 62.4 percent.
  • increase the proportion of the accused who are prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned from 34 to 81 percent.
  • increase the median prison time served by robbers from 31.5 to 74.7 months.

All three are expensive in the short run.21 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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