Criminal Justice

Why Liberals and Conservatives Are Both Wrong on Crime

Soft-on-crime polices don't work. But neither do rampant imprisonment and overcriminalization.


After several decades of passionate disagreement, it now appears we have a winner in the contentious debate over crime: nobody.

Judging by the numbers, soft-on-crime liberals were flat-out wrong. But so were tough-on-crime conservatives—as many of them now readily admit.

Some history:

In the 1950s, roughly five criminals in the U.S. went to jail for every 100 crimes reported, which translates into an incarceration probability of 5 percent. At that time, there were roughly five serious crimes for every 1,000 people. By the 1980s, the probability of incarceration had fallen to 1.57 percent, and the incidence of serious crime rose to 22.8 events per 1,000 people. Crime was so bad private citizens started neighborhood-watch patrols, Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels patrolled New York and the public was screaming for change.

So politicians started getting tough on crime. States passed three-strikes laws, built prisons, imposed mandatory minimum sentences, and so on. Virginia under Gov. George Allen abolished parole; the commonwealth's prison population is now more than 700 percent larger than it was in the 1970s.

Lo and behold, crime began to fall. This produced what is known in journalism circles as the Fox Butterfield Effect.

Butterfield was a New York Times reporter who became infamous for writing stories such as one in 1997 headlined, "Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling." This was followed the next year by "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops," and later by "Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction" and finally in 2003 by "More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime."

To The New York Times, this qualified as a paradox. To everyone else, it was logical: When you put career criminals behind bars, law-abiding citizens do not suddenly start knocking over liquor stores in order to keep the crime rate steady.

Yet the Butterfield Effect is both contagious and persistent. A recent article in National Journal observed that "the violent-crime rate is the lowest it's been in 20 years, yet there hasn't been a corresponding decrease in incarceration." And in a column last month for The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel lamented the fact that "during the past four decades, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled even as the crime rate dropped." This is like complaining that childhood vaccination rates continue to rise despite the sharp drop decline in polio infections.

Now, however, there is a sense that the pendulum has swung too far. One in nine prisoners is serving a life sentence, even though crime is largely an activity of the young. Sixty percent of lifers are black; 10,000 Americans are serving life terms for nonviolent offenses.

A great deal of imprisonment occurs because of the war on drugs—a war on which the U.S. spends $15 billion a year, with little to show for it. Marijuana prohibition alone costs more than $3.5 billion a year, and leads to 750,000 arrests annually—yet nearly half the public has tried pot and more than half thinks it should be legalized.

Even many conservatives now argue that the nation's criminal-justice policies are excessively harsh. Some of them have started an organization called Right on Crime to agitate for reform. In some ways, this is a natural fit: Mass incarceration is a costly enterprise that requires lots of tax revenue. Fiscal conservatives look at the bill and gasp. Social conservatives, meanwhile, wonder how you build a thriving community when so much human capital is behind bars and a rap sheet keeps many of the remaining men unemployed.

Right on Crime also laments "creeping overcriminalization," which sends otherwise law-abiding citizens to prison for long stretches because they violate bureaucratic edicts rather than other people's rights. By one estimate, the typical American unknowingly commits three felonies a day through acts as innocuous as tossing out junk mail addressed to somebody else. That is the apotheosis of big government.

What's more, rampant imprisonment might not have been the cure-all for serious crime that many once thought it was. As former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli noted not long ago, crime has actually fallen slightly faster in those states that are locking up fewer people compared with those that are locking up more.

On Tuesday, Cuccinelli took part in a panel discussion on reforming the criminal-justice system, during which he was in frequent agreement with more liberal representatives from the ACLU and the Sentencing Project. The latter group notes that while crime has been falling everywhere, it has been falling even faster in New York, New Jersey, and California—three states that have, collectively, cut their prison populations by roughly one-fourth.

In other words, crime keeps falling even though the prison population is shrinking. There's another paradox for The New York Times to explore.

Letting career criminals run free doesn't work. Locking everybody up at the drop of a hat doesn't work, either. Now that we know what doesn't work, the trick will be to find out what does.

Free Minds and Free Markets aren't free! Support Reason's annual Webathon with a tax-deductible donation and help change the world in a libertarian direction. For details on giving levels and swag, go here now.


NEXT: Joe Biden Caption Contest

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Conservatives want to be tough on victimless crime, liberals want to be soft on actual crime.

    1. Actually, liberals want to be tough on victimless crime, too. And they want more victimless crimes.

      1. Well, more crimes allows one to pick and choose who is charged.

  2. Eric Garner, your thoughts?

    Oh, we’ll let you catch your breath first…


    1. What you have here is apoplectic hypoxia.

  3. Thank goodness someone’s making the distinction between your recidivist violent felons on the one hand and your nonviolent offenders and first offenders on the other hand.

    A lot of the agitation on criminal justice has been “OMG too many people in prison!” without distinguishing among those who *should* be put away for long periods and those who shouldn’t.

    Let’s not swing over to the European regime of short sentences for violent criminals, the sentences being served in what look like college dorm rooms:…

    1. Nobody should be put away for long periods. There is just no logical way to support it.

      The premise behind locking them away for long periods is that they are too dangerous to be allowed to roam free.

      Ok, so if they are dangerous today why would we expect that they would be any less dangerous after spending 20 years in a dehumanizing institution that isolates them from most normal human socialization and surrounds them with other dangerous criminals? That’s right there isn’t. Sure some small handful of dangerous repeat criminals might reform themselves while serving long prison sentences, the overwhelming majority however just learn to be better criminals.

      So if 20 years behind bars doesn’t make them any safer why are we ever going to let them out. If we’re never going to let them out why are we wasting millions keeping them in prison, just either create an exile preserve and send them to it or kill them.

      1. I agree that the sentences can seem arbitrary, but I’m not sure what you’re proposing as an alternative.

        1. That a justice system which is solely concerned with punishment is always doomed to fail at any goal which it has.

          In order for the Justice system to ever work you need to encompass both restitution (yes full restitution is not always possible, that doesn’t mean you can’t try and do something) and rehabilitation. Simply warehousing people for an arbitrary number of years as a punishment doesn’t accomplish anything except wasting a whole bunch of money.

      2. We have this insane logic that severe sentences are a deterrent. Well, sure, a prison hell keeps ME from murdering others so it’s completely logical. That, and I have no need or desire to murder others except politicians. Ah, I’ve figured it out. Severe sentences are an illusion for crimes against the citizenry. They are really a deterrent to all of us with a brain who should be murdering politicians. Norwegian prison wouldn’t stop any of us.

      3. That’s pretty much the way I think about it. Restraint should be for acutely agitated persons. 90 days max should be enough to cool off. And it should be in conditions like that described in Norway, which are adequate to serve the fx of restraint without becoming punitive, which is a different thing. Anybody who you don’t think to be acutely agitated but a long term danger in need of restraint should simply be put to death.

        OTOH, if you want to punish, incarceration’s an inefficient way to do so. Better to fine and/or inflict physical pain, and be done with it in a hurry & cheaply. Hard for me to imagine a useful regime of pain infliction lasting longer than, say, a couple weeks of burns, cuts, or electric shocks, and in fact the usual course would probably take no more than minutes.

    2. What’s wrong with serving the sentences in the like of college dorm rooms (except probably neater)? If it accomplishes restraint, why spend more to make things less pleasant?

      1. Because if inmates have their own rooms and a computer, they may watch porn. And, if they watch porn, they may not be raping each other. And, if they’re not raping each other, than it’s really not prison at all.

  4. A great deal of imprisonment occurs because of the war on drugs?a war on which the U.S. spends $15 billion a year, with little to show for it.

    That money feeds a lot of kids!

    The DEA agents’ kids, the civil servants’ kids, the drug czar appointee’s kids, the managers’ kids, the local and state police officers’ kids, the…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.