Crime Scene Tape

By Jazelle Hunt
NNPA Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. (NNPA) – The crime rate has been steadily decreasing for 25 years, but mass incarceration has had very little, if any, impact on the decline, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

The 134-page study, titled “What Caused the Crime Decline?” found that “when other variables are controlled for, increasing incarceration had a minimal effect on reducing property crime in the 1990s and no effect on violent crime.”

The report continued, “In the 2000s, increased incarceration had no effect on violent crime and accounted for less than one-hundredth of the decade’s property crime drop.”

Some states with large Black populations, such as Michigan, Texas, New York, and California, even reduced their prison populations during the crime decline with no adverse effects. Texas, for example, has decreased its imprisonment rate by 15 to 25 percent since 2000; at the same, both property crime and violent crime have dropped about 20 to 30 percent.

The NYU report examines the significance of several most-likely factors in the crime decline, such as increased police numbers, gun laws, unemployment, drug use, and more. Growth in income, decreased alcohol, and the aging population use were the three most important factors in the crime decline that the researchers could verify. Together, they were responsible for up to 25 percent of the drop in both violent and property crime.

Inflation and consumer confidence had some effect on property crime over the last 25 years to a lesser (and harder to prove) degree. In the ‘90s, but not the 2000s, decreased crack use, legalized abortion, and decreased lead in gasoline also “possibly” had some effect on both property and violent crime, according to the research.

Police departments were the wildcard.

On one hand, a rise in officer recruitment was responsible for up to 10 percent of the overall crime decline in the ’90s, though that effect has worn off over the last decade. Law enforcement’s CompStat approach – which uses data and technology to analyze local crime and direct attention and resources accordingly to reduce it – also appeared to have a positive effect on the nation’s 50 most populated cities; overall, it has been responsible for a 5 to 15 percent drop in crime where implemented.

But in city-by-city analysis of CompStat, its impact varies. In Oakland, Calif. for example, crime had increased 36 percent during the year before CompStat was introduced. During the year after, crime was down 4 percent. In Philadelphia, crime had increased 14 percent in the previous year, and another 8 percent the year after CompStat. In a more current example, New York’s crime rate fell during the NYPD slowdown in the wake of protests against the choking death of Eric Garner. But Baltimore is experiencing its deadliest month in 15 years since the Baltimore Police Department’s slowdown following the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody.

Further, the police are often a gateway to the criminal justice system and the first link in the chain of mass incarceration.

Mass incarceration has not only ceased to be a factor in deterring crime, it has also become a drain on American society.

The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but holds 25 percent of its incarcerated population. One in three Americans now has a criminal record. One in nine school-aged Black children has or has had a parent in prison. The Brennan Center calculates that federal prison spending has increased 1,100 percent in 30 years as a result of being overpopulated by more than 30 percent – fueling the rise of for-profit prisons that disproportionately house young Blacks and Latinos.

“When I say today’s unprecedented levels [of incarceration] I mean the 2.3 million Americans incarcerated today. Incarceration is not just any policy…incarceration comes with huge tolls. It costs $260 billion a year and it’s not doing anything to reduce crime,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, one of the report’s co-authors, speaking at an event on its implications.

“Research has shown, in fact, that the U.S. poverty rate has increased by 20 percent because of mass incarceration rate. There are proposals on the table to cut back on mandatory minimums, to curb nonviolent drug offenses, and there is renewed attention being paid across the country to rehabilitation to lower recidivism rates. All of these proposals are worth great consideration.”

Eisen believes that new sentencing policies are the best way to undo mass incarceration and its effects, adding that mandatory minimums sentencing caused a 750-percent growth in the federal prison system alone since the 1980s. Bipartisan bills such as the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 502) and the Corrections Act (S. 467) target mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, and expand state-based programs that successfully deter crime and reduce recidivism.

“We are at somewhat of a crossroads. Many states and state policy makers, federal policy makers, and constituents have realized the economic and moral costs of mass incarceration, and have realized that it’s just not worth the expense,” Eisen said. “We are hoping that this report we just issued on the crime decline will provide additional evidence to policy makers in states and here on Capitol Hill that today’s unprecedented levels of incarceration are not making us safer.”

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