By Tom Reifer
midnight, May 29, 2011
The dramatic drop in crime rates in San Diego County – with the exception of hate crimes and bank robberies – mirrored to varying extents around the country, cries out for explanation. It defies the premise that economic crisis usually leads to increased crime.
Here, though, citizens must be cautious. Consider an election debate last year between the top contenders for California attorney general. Los Angeles County District Attorney Tom Cooley, who was to lose to his counterpart from San Francisco, Kamala Harris, asserted that historically low crime rates in California were due primarily to increased mass incarceration.
Cooley’s assertion may not be correct.
California’s prisons are certainly operating at nearly double their designed capacity, leading to federal court orders to cut the population by 33,000 prisoners, orders affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court last week. The forced reduction is a controversial move, since California has the highest recidivism rate in the United States, with two-thirds of prisoners returning within three years of release. To comply with the orders, money is being diverted from prisoner rehabilitation, social services and education, all associated with successful prisoner reintegration.
California’s mass incarceration boom, the nation’s largest, saw prisoners increase from 25,000 in 1980 to some 143,000 today. It was supported by the prison guards union, the most powerful lobby in the state, and set the pace for prison expansion in the nation as a whole. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, some 2.4 million persons. California built 21 new prisons from 1985-2005, or one a year. And in 2009, the United States saw its incarceration rate increase for the 37th year in a row.
Despite trends in recent decades to mass imprisonment or to the broken windows/zero tolerance policing, where police vigorously crack down on petty crimes and misdemeanors, empirical evidence for these theses is shaky to nonexistent. Thorough research on earlier crime declines attributed only a limited role to prison expansion, a quarter at most. Even that is questionable given that Canada experienced a similar drop but without a prison boom. Even those who saw some linkage in the 1990s drop in crime with incarceration see no evidence pointing to a relationship this time around.
In 1993-2001, for example, San Diego was second only to New York in experiencing the biggest crime drop of any city in the United States, with our violent crime decreasing by 45 percent and homicides decreasing by 62 percent. But New York’s crime drop was associated with aggressive zero tolerance policing and a concomitant 50 percent increase in misdemeanor arrests. San Diego’s crime drop, by contrast, was accomplished through a community policing model that resulted in a 1 percent decrease in misdemeanor arrests. In fact, from 1994 to 2000, prison sentences in San Diego were actually reduced by 25 percent.
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