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.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly 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