Crime and Punishment Criminal Justice Prison Prison Policy

The James Q Wilson Factor – Part Deux


It turns out I was not the only person annoyed
by Sunday’s James Q. Wilson Op Ed. Texas smart guy, Scott Henson, the public policy wonk who runs the excellent blog, Grits for Breakfast, fulminated mightily over Wilson’s one-sided natterings. Here’s some of what Henson posted on the issue.

For starters, his comment about incarceration vs. safety
results in states cannot survive a comparison between Texas and New York, for example, so I’d like to see the research backing up that statement. By relying on Mr. Levitt’s [Freakonomics] often controversial work, he’s identified a scholar whose estimates of the effectiveness of imprisonment fall on the high end of those produced in the last decade. Levitt thinks that imprisonment accounted for as much as 32% of the reduction in crime in the 1990s (See “Understanding why crime fell in the 1990s”).

Other econometric estimates
– including one by UT-Austin’s Bill Spelman – found that expanding the prison population accounted for about a quarter of the crime reduction in the ’90s. (Bill and I have enjoyed a friendly dispute about this in the past, because I think some of his assumptions overstate incarceration’s effectiveness and understate its harms). Overall, according to a recent paper by the Vera Institute, Levitt and Spelman “produced a fairly consistent finding, associating a 10 percent higher incarceration rate with a 2 to 4 percent lower crime rate.”

But if we are to be honest about the state of empirical research on the topic, one cannot declare emphatically, as Wilson does, that “deterrence works” or that expanded incarceration “reduces crime.” According to the Vera Institute, “One could use available research to argue that a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with no difference in crime rates, a 22 percent lower index crime rate, or a decrease only in the rate of property crime.”

What’s more, even the highest estimates,
like Mr. Levitt’s, still contend that 2/3 of the crime 0reduction had nothing to do with incarceration. So the decline in crime, according to these sources, mostly wasn’t because of putting more people in prison.

Wilson says as much when he writes that, “Several scholars have separately estimated that the increase in the size of our prison population has driven down crime rates by 25%.” But crime has declined much more than that since the early ’90s, and Texas’ prison population tripled since then, for example, so if it takes a 300% increase in prison capacity to get a 25% reduction in crime, how far can we really take that strategy?

Wilson similarly ignores research that suggests real, immediate limits to the benefits of incarceration in states that have large prison systems, again from the Vera Institute (p. 7):

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.

There’s more here. Go Scott!


  • In a report released today by D C’s Justice Policy Institute (referenced in today’s L A Daily News), a big problem with jails is that they’re used as “asylums” for the mentally ill.

    A local rep for the ACLU (not citing his sources — the article gets a little vague), claims that in L A County, a whopping HALF of all inmates are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and a staggering 60% are mentally ill. If this is true, that’s a huge problem with why jails aren’t preventing crime. (But wasn’t it the ACLU who put an end to the criminally insane being locked up separately, and required they be allowed back on the streets, to commit more crime?)

    Plus, only 10% of those in L A County jails have been even sentenced — the rest are waiting for the too-slow cogs of justice to move along.

    All this is relevant because the Supervisors are weighing how to allocate their $700 County budget for jails, whether to tear down “the largest men’s jail in the western world” and the Women’s Brand jail, rebuild as smaller facilities, or what. Sounds like the ideal time to think about separating those who need mental and chemical dependency treatments, for their benefit AND the safety of the general jail population.

    Plus, with other reports (replayed on Ch. 7 or 9 last week) that Calif. is spending $850 million a year to incarcerate just illegals, most of them in So Cal and L A County — that figure alone exceeds the whole County jail budget — while the feds reimbursed all of Calif. just $100 million, county and state officials need to put more pressure on the feds.

    (Who meanwhile, are extending the border fence another 650 miles, angering environmentalists, as we read in the papers like the L A Times, media like CNN. It’s being played up by conservatives as the “snail garter” and sanddunes vs. the war on drugs and terror, and regaining our country. Wonder which way the sentiments on this blog will blow…AS Americans now require passports to drive back into the US from Mexico, making lines even longer and, combined with reports of assaults on tourists, hurting the economy there. But is it stopping illegal human traffickers?)

  • WBC, I guess we’re going to be hearing horrible things about the “imperial presidency” on the border fence construction. Bush bashing takes precedence over national security.

    LINK: Chertoff: Laws to be waived for border fence

    …the executive director of the Sierra Club, an environmental group, said the move “threatens the livelihoods and ecology of the entire U.S.-Mexico border region.”

  • More: Lawmaker Accuses Administration of Abusing Authority to Build Barrier at Mexican Border

    Two environmental advocacy organizations, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club, have filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of the waiver provision. Rodger Schlickeisen, Defenders of Wildlife’s president, said yesterday’s announcement bolsters his group’s argument.

    “Thanks to this action by the Bush administration, the border is in a sense more lawless now than when Americans first started moving West,” Schlickeisen said in a statement. “Laws ensuring clean water and clean air for us and our children — dismissed. Laws protecting wildlife, land, rivers, streams and places of cultural significance — just a bother to the Bush administration. Laws giving American citizens a voice in the process — gone. Clearly this is out of control.”

    Make me puke.

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