NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 29, 2008

Crime rates peaked nationally in 1995 and have declined substantially over the last decade, says Bert Useem, a professor at Purdue University and Anne Morrison Piehl, an associate professor at Rutgers University.  In 1995, there were 684 violent crimes nationally per 100,000 residents; in 2006, there were 473.

One place has topped even those impressive figures, yet it has received little publicity and no credit. The location is U.S. prisons.  Prison crime data are notoriously problematic, but statistics on some types of crime are more reliable than others:

  • Between 1973 and 2003, the homicide rate in state prisons declined a staggering 94 percent, dropping from 63 homicides per 100,000 state inmates, to 8 in 1990 and 4 in 2003.
  • Prison suicide rates also dropped sharply. In 1980, there were 34 inmate suicides per 100,000 inmates; this rate decreased to 16 suicides per 100,000 in 1990, and has remained stable.

The best explanation of the decline in violent crime in prisons is improved leadership and management.  Prison wardens rejected the conventional wisdom that inmates could disrupt prison life at will, and they determined to counter whatever inmates threw at them.

For example:

  • Training was increased for correctional officers, promoting their professionalism and commitment.
  • Inmates who committed new crimes were, instead of being punished with administrative sanctions, increasingly prosecuted, with new sentences tacked onto their existing ones. (Whatever else inmates want, they want to go home.)
  • Gang membership was disrupted by frequent moves to break up cliques.

The transformation was ultimately achieved by new administrators attacking the root causes of disorder.

Source: Bert Useem and Anne Morrison Piehl, "The Other Big Crime Drop," The Weekly Standard, April 28, 2008.

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