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To reduce mass incarceration, reduce violence
The recent increase in violent crime threatens to halt a decades-long decline in incarceration
The size of America’s correctional system has been declining for over a decade and racial disparities in mass incarceration for twice that long, according to a new study from the Council on Criminal Justice. But reformers can’t relax because both trends are threatened by violent crime.
Comparing violent crime rates gathered from the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting program with Bureau of Justice Statistics data on incarceration in jails and prisons reveals a striking pattern (see chart). When violent crime fell for an extended period, incarceration eventually started falling as well. This virtuous cycle dropped the population incarceration rate to a 27-year low in 2020, with the African American imprisonment rate falling even further to a 33-year low.
But violent crime stopped falling in 2020, with the homicide rate rising more in a single year (by 30%) than it had in over a century. Although changes in data monitoring systems make it harder to determine precisely what happened to the crime rate in 2021, the violent crime trend seems roughly flat, indicating that the 2020 increase was not a bloody one-year blip.
Violent crime directly increases incarceration by increasing the number of individuals who are punished. As Adam Gelb, President of the Council on Criminal Justice pointed out, the 2020 homicide spike alone is enough to result in sentences that would fill 42 500-bed prisons for a year.
Violence also increases incarceration indirectly, as policymakers and the public are less willing to reduce punishments. Gallup reported that concern about crime has reached its highest level since 2016 as homicides have risen around the country.
The Council on Criminal Justice’s analysis further highlighted the importance of reducing violence by noting that declines in incarceration and racial disparities have mainly been achieved by changes in the enforcement of drug laws and in the management of non-violent offenses. Who’s still behind bars? People convicted of violent crimes, who now constitute 58.2% of inmates in state prisons.
And to state the obvious: reducing violent crime would be inherently valuable even if it didn’t translate into reduced incarceration. Violent crime destroys lives, and those most at risk are the same populations whose benefit is a leading goal of reform. Black Americans accounted for 13 percent of the population in 2020, but 56 percent of homicide victims and 39 percent of those arrested for homicide, according to data from the Justice Department. When violent crime falls, Black Americans thus reap a double reward of lower victimization and lower incarceration.
Many people (at least those who aren’t on Twitter) look instinctively to the police to reduce violence. The U.S. has fewer police per capita and a lower resulting success rate at solving violent crime than other nations, as Charles Lane recently noted in the Washington Post. More and better policing could increase the proportion of homicides, rapes, and assaults resulting in arrest and conviction, which would deter others from committing violent crimes.
But not all strategies for reducing violence require law enforcement. Other policies with evidence of cutting violent crime include expanding Medicaid and making quality mental health and addiction care universally available, both of which allow many problems that can easily turn into criminal behavior to instead be humanely treated by health professionals.
Raising taxes on alcohol, which have been declining in real terms for 30 years, would also reduce violence. This effect has been demonstrated in many locales and often proves to be particularly potent in reducing male violence against women.
Community-level approaches can also be effective. Sending street outreach workers to intervene with high-risk individuals and restoring abandoned and decaying housing in urban “hot spots” have evidence of reducing the likelihood of future gun violence.
Reducing access to firearms, for example by people with a documented propensity for violence, can also reduce crime. The United States’ permission of near-universal gun possession will probably prevent violent crime from declining to the levels of societies with far tighter regulation (e.g., Japan), but smart regulation should still reduce the prevalence of fatal and non-fatal shootings.
Any of these proposals would encounter political resistance from some quarters. But the benefits of adopting them are so large that reformers should not be intimidated. Not only would reducing violence make everyone’s life better, it would also re-energize the nation’s progress toward a more reasonably-sized, racially-equitable criminal justice system.