Friday, April 2, 2010

America's Historically Low Crime Rates at Risk

Why has prison population decreased for the first time in 38 years?

Rehabilitation outside prison can be cheaper and more effective than similar treatment in prison. The math on these initiatives is simple: A day in prison costs $79 on average; a day on probation costs $3.42. Adam Gelb, a public-safety specialist at the Pew Center on the States told the Wall Street Journal. "States can substantially beef up supervision in the community and do it at a fraction of the cost of a prison cell."

Some policymakers complain that early release of prisoners will increase crime rates. The tide may already have turned. New York City is in the midst of a substantial increase in homicides this year. The most recent annual homicide rates had been the lowest ever recorded in the city.

On the other hand, some experts say concerns about ex-cons returning to crime are overblown. James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a nonprofit that advises states on prison policy told the Wall Street Journal, "The premise that the numbers of people released from prison affects the crime rate is wrong.” Recidivism rates for California prisoners released in 2006, he says, suggest that shortening terms by four months for all eligible prisoners would boost the number of arrests by less than 1% during the year of their release.

My Take

America’s enormous gains in safety and security may be at risk. Crime rates are at their lowest point in decades. However, America must not rest on its laurels. The sputtering economy and its impact on government revenue have the ability to make those gains disappear.

Law makers need to be cautious in their efforts to balance the budget on the backs of law enforcement and corrections. The unprecedented drop in crime rates came at a cost. More police on the street and more criminals in prison had an impact on crime. Society cannot expect to continue the same trend with exactly the opposite input.

It would be full hearty to ignore some of the evidence-based programs that have impacted recidivism. However, it would be just as naive to believe that crime rates will continue to fall without ongoing support for policing and the incapacitating effect of incarceration.

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