Crime and Punishment: The Inmate Population is Growing-but that has Given Us Safer Streets

By Morgan Reynolds

A reprint from the Nov. 13 issue – The point seems obvious to most Americans: punishment reduces crime. Yes, prison takes a toll on the family the convict leaves behind.

BUT CRIME also takes a toll on its victims and society at large. And crime rates have fallen by one third over the past decade while the prison and jail population have risen to 2 million. Most people are able to connect these dots.

True, our violent-crime rate remains too high, concentrated on inner-city victims. But we no longer have high property-crime rates by international standards; our burglary rate, for example, is below average for industrial nations. And the improved trends have come as we have handed out more and longer prison sentences. There is a connection.

Some history is in order. In the 1960s and early 1970s, prison was considered backward and too harshly retributive. Prison populations fell as we channeled convicts into community rehabilitation programs. But Americans became so fed up with criminals and criminality that they virtually forced their governments into incarcerating more people. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the prison population was growing by up to 9 percent a year. This raised the risk of prison, but the time actually served remained relatively short. Only in recent years, when both the prison population and sentences have increased, has the threat of prison begun to deter crime. Deterrence depends on fear, and that can be increased by meting out punishment swiftly, certainly and severely, consistent with justice.

We’ve seen this trend at work in Texas, where crime rocketed during the 1980s as expected punishment plunged. Our experience both nationally and in Texas shows that incarceration can stop a rising crime rate and then gradually push it down.

It would be tragic if we went soft on criminals now and had to relearn this lesson the hard way.

Putting criminals in jail is not enough, of course. We punish by denying the criminal freedom, but if we want him to change, he must learn to cope responsibly with life’s challenges, including respecting the rights of others and earning a paycheck. We need prisons that truly correct.

We have model schools, hospitals and corporations but no model prisons. Prison systems must innovate and pursue promising experiments. That means they must rely less on government jailers and more on market rules. Begin by judging corrections departments according to the recidivism rates of their ex-convicts. Next, contract out more incarceration to private organizations, especially faith-based, nonprofit prisons. Then aggressively recruit private enterprise to employ inmates inside and near prisons. Study after study shows that real employment before release not only improves behavior behind bars, but serves as the strongest known antidote to crime after release. Everyone prefers prevention to prison, yet apprehension, conviction and punishment must remain the backbone of the system. It’s sad and expensive-but true.

Reynolds is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas and professor of economics at Texas A&M University.

©2000 Newsweek, Inc.