Sunday, February 04, 2007

Could more prison building increase Texas crime?

According to a new Vera Insititute report, at Texas' current incarceration levels, building more prisons might actually INCREASE crime.

Thanks to Thinking Outside the Cage for pointing out an excellent new meta-analysis from the Vera Institute, described as "a 45-year-old nonprofit organization that works on safety and justice issues and is headed by Michael Jacobson, who ran New York City's jails and probation system for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani," on the effectiveness of incarceration vs. other alternative crime fighting approaches

Their public policy report released in January, Reconsidering Incarceration: New Directions for Reducing Crime, relies heavily on UT-Austin criminologist and former Austin city councilmember Bill Spelman's research, particularly his widely quoted estimate that a ten percent increase in incarceration leads to a 2-4 percent reduction in crime.

Bill and I have gone around a little over those stats awhile back, and Vera's analysis captures some of my own discomfort at the results - because they're utterly ambiguous they prove little, or more accurately, they confirm whatever preconceived notion you may already have about whether or not prisons "work" to reduce crime. Whatever your view, Bill's findings confirm them if you dig around in the numbers enough. As the report noted,
Supporters take the findings as a confirmation that prison works, concluding that every 10 percent increase in incarceration rates will produce a 2 to 4 percent decrease in crime rates. Opponents, on the other hand, see the findings as a confirmation that prison does not work very well at all. They maintain that even a 4 percent decrease in crime is not much for a 10 percent increase in incarceration.38 Indeed, Spelman himself characterizes a 2 to 4 percent crime reduction as a fairly limited impact given the sizable financial obligation states have incurred in incarcerating so many people.
Given that central conundrum in Spelman's findings, I was happy to see Vera go on to cite additional research I hadn't seen before that I think better characterizes the more fluid, less certain reality of incarceration's effectiveness - bottom line, it's only effective up to a point:
Raymond Liedka, Anne Piehl, and Bert Useem have confirmed, moreover, that increases in prison populations in states with already large prison populations have less impact on crime than increases in states with smaller prison populations. States experience “accelerating declining marginal returns, that is, a percent reduction in crime that gets ever smaller with ever larger prison populations,” they argue. Thus, increases in incarceration rates are associated with lower crime rates at low levels of imprisonment, but the size of that association shrinks as incarceration rates get bigger. Eventually, they say, there is an “inflection point” where increases in incarceration rates are associated with higher crime rates. This inflection point occurs when a state’s incarceration rate reaches some point between 325 and 492 inmates per 100,000 people. In other words, states with incarceration rates above this range can expect to experience higher crime rates with future increases in incarceration rates.
So by that estimate, once the incarceration rate exceeds "between 325 and 492 inmates per 100,000 people," you hit a tipping point and crime actually starts to increase with more imprisonment. Texas' current incarceration rate is greater than 1,000 per 100,000 adults. So what does that tell you about the wisdom of more prison building? As indicated in the report's title, it's high time to reconsider incarceration. As Vera concluded:
Public safety cannot be achieved only by responding to crime after it occurs; research shows that it may also depend on protecting people against those factors that have been shown to be associated with high crime rates, such as unemployment, poverty, and illiteracy. By pursuing crime reduction chiefly through incarceration, states are forgoing the opportunity to invest in these other important areas. As state policymakers continue to feel pressure to introduce measures to keep crime rates low, they would therefore do well to look beyond incarceration for alternative policies that not only may be able to accomplish the important task of protecting public safety, but may do so more efficiently and more effectively.
I agree. And on that note, it might be a good time to link to Grits' "Real Public Safety Agenda for Texas," in case Texas legislators may be looking for public safety investments that don't involve bricks and mortar.


Anonymous said...

Take a fresh look at incarceration.

Ignore humans for the moment. Now think about other species and ask yourself whether the best solution to every problem is locking animals in cages.

Our government's first choice for unwanted behavior is incarceration, except of the unwanted behavior is committed by rich people, for whom it is generously rewarded.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent writing. You made a pretty complex idea understandable. Clearly it is time to get rid of the guys who favor a "lock em up" solution. We need to let the guys who favor prevention, treatment and a social safety net for the poor a chance to see what they can do.

Anonymous said...

Answer to Annonymous, remember this when vote time comes around. I am keeping record of those who have the"lock'em up and throw away the key and will work toward getting them other jobs. I don't want that attitude in my State. That should have left when GW went to Washington to ruin the rest of our country.

Anonymous said...

Strange how there are so many political parasites in offices across this land, that in " no way " represent our beliefs as a nation or as a people! Yet even though we out number them millions to one, we accept and allow it???

We all need to keep in mind, if we continue to fail to stand and demand our rights and freedoms. There will come a time we will only get them back by FORCE!

So why don't we stand up now, and avoid the blood shed of our children who will make sacrifices for what WE FAILED to protect! It wasn't them that our ancestors past the responsibility on to IT WAS US!!!!


Rusty White

Anonymous said...

Why do IDIOT'S try to blame the government for someones criminal actions? I continue to be amazed that supposedly educated people try to blame the Republicans/ Democrats or someone else for everything wrong in this country. We are all responsible for our own actions, and values/morals seem to have vanished from our society! STOP THE BLAMING AND STRIVE TO BE AN EXAMPLE! Come back soon Jesus!