When Crime Drops, Eventually the Prison Population Does Too


It’s common—but entirely unsupported by the evidence—to argue that bad economic times lead to higher crime rates and higher prison populations. In the Washington Post this weekend, Mike Konczal airs the contrarian position that maybe our most recent recession led to a drop in the prison population. Keith Humphreys argues that this is entirely unsupported by the evidence too:

The prison population started rising during the mid-1970s oil shock and kept right on rising during the recessions of 1980, 1981-1982, 1990-1991 and 2001. If we want to explain a historic reversal of a multi-decade trend, we cannot logically do it by pointing to a factor that occurred repeatedly — a lousy economy — while that trend was underway (and p.s. the rate of incarceration also rose during the Great Depression).

Look instead for more novel factors to explain why the incarceration rate is finally falling, such as the lowest crime rates we have in generations, lower fear of crime than in generations, the emergence of effective alternatives to incarceration, and/or, if Kevin Drum is right, the dramatic reduction in lead in the environment.

I appreciate the shout out on lead, but I want to register a small semantic complaint: in what way would falling crime rates be a novel explanation for falling incarceration rates? Seems like ham and eggs to me. Based solely on the dramatic drop in crime rates over the past two decades, I’m willing to bet that prison populations will continue to drop for a good long time.

Konczal marshals some fairly unconventional arguments for and against the idea that recessions are related to incarceration rates, but never mentions the massive U.S. decline in crime rates since 1991. But you really can’t do that. There have indeed been changes in the way we think about incarceration over the past few years—on both left and right—but those changes have themselves been driven by lower crime rates that everyone now agrees are permanent. That’s where it all starts.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.