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.

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

payment methods

A BETTER WAY TO DO THIS?

We have an ambitious $350,000 online fundraising goal this month and we can't afford to come up short. But when a reader recently asked how being a nonprofit makes Mother Jones different from other news organizations, we realized we needed to lay this out better: Because "in absolutely every way" is essentially the answer.

So we tried to explain why your year-end donations are so essential, and we'd like your help refining our pitch about what make Mother Jones valuable and worth reading to you.

We'd also like your support of our journalism with a year-end donation if you can right now—all online gifts will be doubled until we hit our $350,000 goal thanks to an incredibly generous donor's matching gift pledge.

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