In 2008, state and federal prisons around the U.S. held more than 1.6 million people. After three decades of growth, it was the peak of American mass incarceration.
Over the next eight years, the nation’s imprisonment rate fell by 11 percent, as many states significantly reduced their prison populations, according to recently released federal data. The 2016 imprisonment rate is as low as it has been since 1997. And yet the U.S. continues to experience long-term reductions in crime.
Those two facts challenge a fundamental assertion among supporters of incarceration, who hold that higher imprisonment rates correlate with lower crime rates, a new Pew report points out.
“The argument has been for so long that if you wanted crime to go down, then prisons had to go up, and the reverse of that is, of course, that if you reduce imprisonment, crime would flourish,” Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project and co-author of the report, told HuffPost. “That’s not what we’re seeing in the data.”
Instead, the numbers reinforce a body of criminal justice research that suggests America’s reliance on incarceration as a crime deterrent has gone “well past the point of diminishing returns,” said Gelb.
“There are so many people locked up that there’s no public safety benefit,” he said.
A total of 36 states reduced their imprisonment rates between 2008 and 2016, and 35 of them saw a simultaneous drop in crime rates, according to the Pew report. Alaska was the outlier: The prison population there fell by 35 percent, the largest such decrease of any state, while crime rose by 16 percent, the second largest such increase of any state.
Between 2008 and 2016, a total of 21 states recorded double-digit declines in both imprisonment and crime rates.
In 12 states, imprisonment rates rose over that period. But the data show that crime rates fell more slowly in those places on average than they did in states with the largest declines in imprisonment.
The Pew study comes with a caveat. Although these figures help disprove the idea that the number of people behind bars is strongly linked with overall crime rates, they don’t necessarily prove that prisons have no effect on crime.
“Whatever impact prison has on crime is weak enough that crime won’t inevitably go up if you cut prisons,” John Pfaff, a Fordham University law professor, told HuffPost. “Perhaps the states that cut prisons might have seen their crime rates drop even more had they not cut prisons.”
Data from the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s suggest prisons did play a role in at least slowing growth in crime, Pfaff said.
“But that’s still not to say they were the right policy call,” he added. “There are other things that could have accomplished the same crime drop with far less financial and social cost.”
In recent years, lawmakers and activists have successfully championed policies to scale back the nation’s sprawling prison system, which houses the world’s largest incarcerated population. There has been some movement on this issue at the federal level, and Congress has been mulling a variety of criminal justice initiatives that could further reduce imprisonment rates. But the majority of recent progress has come at the state level, as Pew reports that more than 30 states have pushed ahead on sentencing, corrections and similar reforms.
“There has been a wave of reforms across the country, in red states and blue states alike, and often with support of very lopsided majorities and sometimes unanimous votes,” Gelb said. “Right now, the general aim of the prison policies focus on [incarcerating] serious chronic violent offenders and to steer lower-level offenders into alternatives. That can be done in a myriad of ways, and it has.”
But there’s still plenty of work to do. Even with recent declines, there were around 1.5 million people behind bars in 2016. And while racial disparities have closed slightly, with the imprisonment rate among black adults declining 29 percent between 2006 and 2016, that rate is still nearly six times that of white adults.
For the most part, the latest imprisonment numbers also don’t account for local jails, which held 630,000 people in 2015. Jail inmate data for 2016 haven’t been released yet, though Gelb believes they will show a drop as well.
The Pew report likely won’t offer much comfort to officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who have pointed to recent increases in the overall violent crime rate in efforts to drum up support for President Donald Trump’s so-called “law and order” agenda. Those upticks in crime are concerning, but Gelb argues that greater incarceration is not the answer.
“We’ve done this experiment over the past several decades and we know how it turns out: More people behind bars, more families broken apart, higher cost for taxpayers and very little, if anything, to show for it in terms of safer streets,” said Gelb. “There are persistent pockets of violence around the country that have to be addressed, but we have to remember that overall crime and violent crime and homicide have not been this low in nearly 50 years.”
Although the Pew study could provide fodder for policymakers to pursue more drastic reductions in incarceration rates, there are also good reasons to back reform that have nothing to do with the impact of prisons ― or lack thereof ― on the crime rate.
For one, there are more effective tools than incarceration to fight crime, including community policing, drug treatment, rehabilitation programs, mental health care and smarter probation schemes, said Pfaff.
For another, Pfaff argues that the social costs of prisons are substantial enough that cuts would be justifiable even if crime did rise afterward.
“Prisons are a vector of STDs and HIV,” said Pfaff. “They’re a vector for tuberculosis. There’s an incredibly elevated risk of dying of a drug overdose in the weeks after being released from prison. … There’s a risk of death or physical harm in prison. There’s loss of income. There’s risk of divorce ― it throws off marriage in high-enforcement communities.”
Americans should care as much about those issues as we do about whether prisons reduce crime, he said.