Do more prisons mean less crime?

By Rina Palta

After 30 years of prison boom in the United States, people are starting to question the usefulness of incarcerating large numbers of people, especially for less serious crimes. In New York, where prison populations skyrocketed after the state passed a series of tough sentencing laws for drug offenders, recent changes have dramatically reduced the prison population. In California, budget woes and federal lawsuits have inspired things like the introduction of non-revocable parole and an expansion in good-time credits for prison inmates–both policies designed to cut down the prison population.

Now, Governor Jerry Brown wants to do more. The current budget calls for less restrictive supervision for a whole host of lower level crimes. That means that fewer crimes carry the penalty of state prison, fewer people getting out go under the strict supervision of state parole, and those that violate parole would likely not go back to prison for the violation.


The Parole Agent Association is starting to push back against these changes–because less parole means the elimination of jobs, but also because parole agents and correctional officers believe in what they do.

In a recent memo to membership, Parole Agent Association of California President Todd Gillam wrote:

According to the Attorney General, California is experiencing the lowest level of criminal activity since the 1980’s. The crime rate is not only low, it is still declining. The entire California criminal justice system, to include CDCR and DAPO, are to be commended for the safety in which Californians live.

It’s an argument we’re likely to hear a lot in the coming months and years as California and states around the nation look to scale back their prison systems. And the timing is hard to ignore: over the past 20 years, as the prison population has skyrocketed, crime has gone down. Does that mean the prison boom and the dramatic rise in incarceration rates have cut crime and kept Americans (at least those not in prison) safer?

The consensus among scholars seems to be that are many factors that contribute to crime levels and its hard to pinpoint any one change as the source of their rise and fall–but that the uptick in incarceration likely accounts for about 25 percent of the nation’s drop in crime.

In 2008, the Pew Center on the States interviewed two preeminent criminologists, Carnegie Mellon’s James Wilson and Pepperdine’s Alfred Blumstein on the impact of incarceration on crime. The interview revealed the reasoning and meaning behind this 25 percent figure.

Continue Reading….


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