Prisoner's Dilemma

Incarceration and Crime


After a nearly two-decade decline, violent crime in the U.S. has begun to inch upward again. The shift has been powered almost entirely by small-to-mid-sized cities such as Cincinnati, Charlotte, and Baltimore. Crime in larger cities such as New York and Chicago has either remained static or continued to fall.

So what's the solution? It probably isn't the "more laws, more prisons" approach that lawmakers typically adopt when crime goes up. The Washington Post recently reported that contrary to conventional wisdom, the Big Apple's violent crime rate dropped dramatically during the last 15 years even as the city emptied its jail cells. The number of prisoners in New York City has dropped by 33 percent since 1993, in stark contrast to the rest of the country, where admissions have jumped by 72 percent.

"I can't tell you exactly why violent crime in New York declined by twice the national rate," former city Correction Commissioner Michael Jacobson told the Post. "But I can tell you this: It wasn't because we locked up more people."

Lawmakers don't seem to be taking notice. Prison construction is booming in much of the rest of the country. One more reason for pessimism: The first nonviolent drug offenders subject to the mandatory minimum sentences in the draconian Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 will soon complete their terms. Surrounding nonviolent offenders with hardened, violent felons for 20 years probably seemed like a great idea at the time, but it could well be hell on the nation's crime rate now that they're about to be released.