Dip in crime rates can’t be credited solely to mass incarceration

When it comes to America’s prison system, Jeff Jacoby is half right (“The prison door keeps revolving,” Op-ed, May 4). Prison is often awful and expensive, and far too many people serve time, only to be released, re-offend, and return.

But Jacoby is not being fair when he writes that the United States now has “the largest prison population on earth — and crime rates at 30-year lows.” Did crime really go down, as Jacoby suggests, just because America massively increased the number of people behind bars? Many criminologists say no, and point to other causes.

Some credit the decrease in unwanted children, with the legalization of abortion, which meant fewer maladjusted teens and adults in the decades since. Others say we should thank “cops on the dots,” the data-driven, geo-mapping policing strategies that first were deployed in America’s cities in the 1990s, just as crime began to drop. Most recently, some analysts have shown how the decreased use of lead in gasoline and paint over the past three decades has led to swift declines in antisocial behavior and crime. Prisons are far from the whole story.


Jacoby also fails to mention the true costs of prisons. While we often think about the costs to taxpayers, the burdens on the communities, families, and children of the incarcerated are too often forgotten.

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Around the world, no nation locks up so many of its citizens, but many nations have far less crime. America should learn from them.

Avi Green


The writer is director of civic outreach at Scholars Strategy Network.