Monday, March 31, 2008

What the Pew Study left out

James Q. Wilson takes the recent Pew Study on imprisonment rates to task for all that it left out in its analysis.
If you read a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, you would think so. As its title proclaimed, more than one in 100 American adults is in jail or prison. For young black males, the number is one in nine.

The report's authors contend that the incarceration rate represents a problem because the number of felons serving time does not have a "clear impact" on crime rates -- and that all those inmates are costing taxpayers too much money to house. But nowhere in the report is there any discussion of the effect of prison on crime, and the argument about costs seems based on the false assumption that we are locking people up at high rates for the wrong reasons.

In the last 10 years, the effect of prison on crime rates has been studied by many scholars. The Pew report doesn't mention any of them. Among them is Steven Levitt, coauthor of "Freakonomics." He and others have shown that states that sent a higher fraction of convicts to prison had lower rates of crime, even after controlling for all of the other ways (poverty, urbanization and the proportion of young men in the population) that the states differed. A high risk of punishment reduces crime. Deterrence works.

But so does putting people in prison. The typical criminal commits from 12 to 16 crimes a year (not counting drug offenses). Locking him up spares society those crimes. Several scholars have separately estimated that the increase in the size of our prison population has driven down crime rates by 25%.
As Wilson notes , there is clear evidence that our higher rate of incarceration has lowered crime rates here. And European nations that have lowered their prison terms have seen a corresponding increase in crimes.
The Pew writers lament the fact that this country imprisons a higher fraction of its population than any other nation in the world, including Russia. But what they ignore is what the United States gets in return for its high rate of incarceration. For instance, in 1976, Britain had a lower robbery rate than did California. But then California got tough on crime as judges began handing out more prison sentences, and Britain became soft as laws were passed encouraging judges to avoid prison sentences. As a result, the size of the state's prison population went up while Britain's went down. By 1996, Britain's robbery rate was one-quarter higher than California's. Compared with those of the U.S. overall, Britain's burglary and assault rates are twice as high, according to a comparative study done by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

These differences in crime rates involve many countries with low imprisonment rates. The robbery rate in the U.S. is not only lower than that in Britain but also that in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Scotlandand Spain, according to the same study. The imprisonment rate in these countries is one-fifth to one-tenth that in the United States.
As Wilson acknowledges, there is a lot more we could be doing to rehabilitate those who are incarcerated and on crime prevention programs, but it does no good to have some study that just looks at the cost of incarceration and not the results.