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For many, America’s soaring incarceration rate and the drop in crime that began 20 years ago are connected. The theory is that if you punish people and make it very costly to commit a crime (expand incarceration), they will have an incentive to live a more virtuous life.
A good question then is whether or not tough sentences have accomplished this? Research by the Pew Center on the States suggests that expanded incarceration accounts for about 25 percent of the drop in violent crime that began in the mid-1990s—leaving the other 75 percent to be explained by things that have nothing to do with keeping people locked up.
If it wasn’t incarceration, what caused the drop?
As Reason contributing editor Radley Balko explains, “There is no shortage of theories: Scholars have pointed to everything from the legalization of abortion to the prohibition of lead-based paints. Other theories credit America’s aging population (the vast majority of criminals are under 30), President Bill Clinton’s program to put more cops on the street, and either stronger gun control laws or an increase in gun carrying by law-abiding Americans.”
More likely, crime scholars argue, we probably have less crime now not because of any anti-crime initiatives dreamed up by academics and politicians but because civil society has quietly churned out benefits independent of those policies. Basically, we are wealthier and the opportunity cost of being incarcerated is high at all level of income.
On that point, it is also worth reading this great piece by Reason Senior Editor Tim Cavanaugh about the drop in New York City’s crime rate.
Contributing Editor Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.