Study Links Drop in Crime to Reduced Incarceration

NEW YORK — In contrast to arguments that increased incarceration is necessary to reduce crime, a new study released June 7 by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law claims otherwise. The study examined data from all 50 states on imprisonment and crime from 2006, (as authors note bipartisan criminal justice reforms generally began around 2007) through 2014, the most recent year for which complete data is available.

Although the U.S. is only home to roughly 5 percent of the global population, researchers noted that the country hosts 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. At the time of publication, study authors Lauren-Brooke Eisen and James Cullen counted an estimated 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails — a roughly 500 percent increase over the last 40 years.

However, the Brennan Center for Justice researchers found that over the last decade, 27 states have successfully decreased both crime and imprisonment. “Nationally, imprisonment and crime have fallen together, 7 percent and 23 percent respectively since 2006. Crime continued its downward trend while incarceration also decreased,” the study authors wrote.

Furthermore, 28 states have reduced their total prison populations. Among those states, every state but one (South Dakota) also experienced a drop in overall crime. Large states, authors noted, such as California, New York and Texas, saw their incarcerated populations shrink by 27 percent, 18 percent and 15 percent, respectively, and each also experienced crime drops of more than 15 percent each. Southern states such as South Carolina and Mississippi have also made significant strides in cutting prison populations, the study noted, as prison rates in those states have dropped by 18 percent and 10 percent, respectively.

States that lowered both crime and imprisonment rates were politically and geographically diverse, according to the study. For example, South Carolina saw a 38 percent drop in violent crime, the largest in the nation. It also saw an 18 percent drop in prison population. New laws enacted by the state in 2010 to eliminate some mandatory-minimum sentences, change lower-level property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and improve the parole and probation release process are likely to thank. These changes saved the state $18 million over four years, while crime fell by 22 percent in the same time span, according to the researchers.

The study also touted New Jersey as a criminal justice reform leader. The state lowered incarceration and crime by 24 percent each, and recently passed a bail reform bill. “New Jersey safely downsized its prison population by enhancing the administrative efficiency of its parole process and increasing flexibility in the sentencing of low-level drug offenders,” the study added.

Eisen and Cullen also noted that, despite progress made, Southern states remain the country’s largest incarcerators. For instance, the authors found Mississippi still claims the nation’s fifth highest incarceration rate. Meanwhile, Texas holds the country’s seventh highest imprisonment rate.

Researchers also highlighted the “vast consequences” to the country’s 500 percent growth in incarceration, noting approximately $262 billion is spent annually to operate to the country’s criminal justice system. Additionally, researchers claim inmates “suffer from wage losses that make reentering the community difficult,” and that inmates have fewer job opportunities and public housing options due to criminal records. “Therefore, it should not be surprising that 45 percent of prisoners end up back in prison,” the authors wrote.