May 12, 2005

Dan Seligman on the Decline in Crime:

In Forbes, Seligman writes:

The New York Times can't quite grasp the concept, but there's a stunningly simple explanation for the huge drop in crime rates: The villains are behind bars. A big story, inadequately memorialized by the media, is that crime in America has become a much smaller story. Crime rates have declined by a third since the early 1990s. Violent crimes--defined by the U.S. Justice Department as homicide, rape, robbery and assault--are down by some 60% since 1993.

Counterintuitive as it might seem, this happy result came about via a massive government social program. The program did not promote job training or administer therapy to thugs. Instead it consisted of putting them behind bars. Today's jail and prison population of 2.1 million is 53% above the 1993 number and roughly triple the 1984 number.

The connection of incarceration to crime rates is hard to ignore. The number of Americans in prison during 1984-2003 correlates -0.71 with the number of violent crimes in the country. That powerful negative coefficient says that increases in the prison population go hand in hand with declines in crimes committed.

The only part of this argument that makes sense is the assertion that our "three strikes and you're out" laws and drug laws are putting away a certain number of relatively harmless folks. But the magnitude of this problem has been wildly overstated. The "nonviolent" prison population is indeed sizable, but it isn't harmless. Last year the Justice Department's statistical bureau turned in a group portrait of inmates who were about to be released after serving time for nonviolent offenses. The data tell us that 95% had an arrest history before the arrest that led to their current imprisonment. On average they had 9.3 prior arrests and about a third of these had been for violent crimes. The fact is that a sizable proportion of criminals sentenced for nonviolent offenses like buying dope is, in fact, chronically violent.

Several weeks ago Charles Murray wrote an article for the London Times on the United Kingdom's growing criminal underclass. The U.K. is, it happens, one of the European countries with incarceration rates far lower than America's. England and Wales combined have a prison population of around 75,000 and a crime problem widely identified as out of control. Citing the American experience, Murray suggested that the British could substantially reduce crime if they were willing to go to an inmate level of around 250,000. Maybe, if enough Brits get mugged in coming years, they would be willing.

Murray was quoted in the Sunday Times:

“The US has dealt with the problem of the underclass by putting 2m people in jail, which has had a big impact. We haven’t rehabilitated anyone but just kept them out of society. It is not a happy solution but it is the only solution.”

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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