Less Crime, More Punishment

A Texas study says crime falls as prisons go up.


During the 1980s, Texas experienced a, well, Texas-sized increase in serious crime–murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and theft. The serious-crime rate jumped 29 percent, even as it dropped by 4 percent in the United States as whole. In 1988, the crime rate peaked at eight crimes for every 100 people, about 40 percent higher than the national average. So far, though, the '90s have proven considerably less crime-ridden in the Lone Star State. The crime rate has dropped to 5.6 crimes per 100 people, the lowest level since 1973.

"Why the sharp declines?" asks Morgan O. Reynolds in Crime and Punishment in Texas: Update, a new study published by the National Center for Policy Analysis. "Punishment works. Incarceration works."

Reynolds, a senior fellow at NCPA and a professor of economics at Texas A&M University, notes that expected punishment–the amount of prison time criminals can expect when they commit crimes, given the probabilities of being apprehended, convicted, and sent to prison–increased fourfold in the state between 1988 to 1994. Reynolds attributes the boost in expected punishment to higher arrest and conviction rates and a "prison-building binge" that started in the early '90s. In 1995, the state completed a $1.5 billion prison construction program; Texas now has the capacity to house 150,000 inmates and boasts the highest incarceration rate in the country (659 per 100,000 inhabitants). In 1994, the actual average time served for all serious crimes was 3 years, up from 1.9 years in 1990.

Noting that the state's crime rates are still above national averages, Reynolds says that to keep reducing crime, Texas must continue to stay the course it has mapped out in the first half of the decade. "Texas has shown in recent years that punishment deters crime and that when crime does not pay criminals commit fewer crimes," writes Reynolds, who discusses various legal, demographic, and economic variables that influence crime rates in Texas.