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Mass incarceration, started by Bill Clinton 20 years ago, does not reduce crime

Now they tell us. Vox:

Twenty years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed a massive anti-crime bill that put more Americans in prison.

But two decades later, an analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts found the states that reduced their incarceration rates actually saw bigger crime drops. That doesn't mean less imprisonment leads to less crime. But the findings show there's no credible correlation, and it gives more credence to previous research that found higher threats of incarceration don't actually deter criminal activity.

Here's the Pew Report "infographic."* And here's the Pew study that prompted the infographic:

In the early 1990s, with violent crime at record levels and public alarm growing, federal and state lawmakers responded with new policies that sent more offenders to prison for longer periods. The federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, in particular, made sweeping changes to U.S. correctional policy by imposing longer prison sentences for federal crimes and encouraging states to implement similar penalties. Two decades later, the nation’s prison population has soared and crime has fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s.

Pew interviewed nine scholars (actual scholars, not Heritage or AEI "scholars" and their opinions are all over the map. The whole article is worth reading, but it's very dense and highly contested material, so I'll pull out some highlights:

[William Spelman, professor of public affairs, University of Texas, Austin]: When you get down to it, nobody really knows. A bunch of us tried to examine the crime drop of the ’90s that extended into the last decade, but with a few exceptions, we could not find any policy levers that had a clear and consistent effect on the crime rate. Potential explanations include demographic shifts, better economic opportunities, changes in drug markets, new police strategies, and increased imprisonment. But most attempts to parcel out responsibility among these explanations are unpersuasive. ...

Spelman: If the question is, “Has the dramatic expansion of our incarcerated population had an effect on crime?” then the answer is unequivocally yes, of course. If you put more bad guys in jail so they can’t get at the rest of us, then you will experience a crime reduction. How much? Our research concluded that about 25 percent of the 1990s crime drop can be linked to increased incarceration. Incarceration rates flattened out in the 2000s, but crime rates kept dropping. So incarceration can’t account for the last 15 years of reductions. ...

[Jeremy Travis, president, John Jay College of Criminal Justice]: When you quadruple the incarceration rate, as we did in this country over a period of four decades, the key question is whether this big investment in prison resulted in a significant decline in crime. The conclusion of our [National Academy of Sciences] committee was that there is no clear answer from a scientific point of view. So states and the federal government invest more than $80 billion a year in this system with the expectation of a big payoff in terms of crime rates, and most studies show that the impact has been quite modest. ....

Raphael: As you increase the number of people you put behind bars, you dip into a population that is increasingly less criminally active, so the benefits of incarceration diminish. We have expanded the scope of what is punishable by incarceration and, in the process, are netting less and less dangerous people on average. You see the effect of this in a number of ways. The prison population has shifted toward less severe offenses. And the average inmate admitted is five years older than he or she was 15 or 20 years ago.

Travis: As we know, the increase in incarceration was caused by two types of policy choices, almost equally divided between choices to make long sentences longer and choices to put people in prison who would not otherwise have been sentenced to prison. The evidence shows that neither policy choice has had a big crime reduction effect. Keeping someone in prison for 20 years instead of 15 years is not going to have a big crime reduction payoff because that person is already in prison. That’s common sense. Meanwhile, the adverse consequences for people serving these long sentences and the ripple effect of that on children and society are profound. ....

[Franklin Zimring, William G. Simon Professor of Law, University of California. Berkeley]: This recent period is a mystery. There are no experts. We had a big decline in crime nationally in the ’90s, then a sort of trendless period between 2000 and 2007. And then after 2007, there were two reasons to think that the bananas should have hit the fan—the meltdown of the economy and the turnaround in imprisonment, meaning it finally stopped growing. But instead we get a sort of a man-bites-dog period of really surprising and pretty substantial crime declines. And nobody is coming up with any plausible explanations for it.

[Philip Cook, Terry Sanford Professor of Public Policy, Duke University]: What’s been left out of the entire conversation is a discussion of private action on crime prevention. Americans spend an enormous amount on private crime prevention and avoidance. There are more people in private security now—around 1 million—than there are uniformed officers. Technology also has had a profound effect on the volume and nature of crime. So, for example, nobody carries cash anymore, and thus the theft of cash has been replaced by credit card fraud. And if a cellphone is stolen there’s an app that lets you track down the thief. And why did auto theft go down so much since the early 1990s? Well, perhaps it’s the new devices built into vehicles that make it damn hard to steal a car these days. The other hugely important private contribution is public cooperation with the police. We’ve seen this remarkable increase in reporting of crime, and overall people are more trusting of police than they were 25 years ago.

Kleiman: The lead issue deserves attention. We know the biological processes by which lead impairs self-command. We have good individual-level case-control data showing [childhood] lead exposure strongly correlated with criminal activity. We have both cross-national and local analyses showing that places with bigger changes in lead, up or down, have corresponding changes in crime, up or down, about 18 years later. The cohort data cast some doubt on how much of the crime decline can be explained by the lead decline, since reduced lead exposure should have affected the younger cohorts only, but crime went down in all cohorts. But my bet would be that lower lead levels made a substantial contribution to crime reduction.

Nobody knows anything!

NOTE Infographics are the dark side of the data revolution in journalism. I'm not talking about the fuzzy artifacts in Vox's horrible and careless grab of Pew's artwork; I'm talking about sourcing: I can't quote the infographic, and it can't be Googled for content, either. Infographics aren't suppposed to make us dumber.