- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 3, 2007

The rise in incarceration as a crime-fighting tool in the United States beginning in the 1970s quite obviously helped clean up American cities and prevent violent crime. But at some point, the marginal benefit of lengthening a prison sentence or jailing a new category of offender is bound to diminish, perhaps even reverse. It’s not “soft on crime” to weigh those questions seriously. And indeed we may already have reached the point where, for many communities, the marginal cost of jailing more criminals now outweighs the benefit. It’s not 1978 anymore.

That conclusion, at least, is underscored in an insightful new report from the Vera Institute of Justice. It should spur states and municipalities to think hard about whether there are more effective and socially beneficial alternatives to expanding prisons or lengthening sentences for certain types of offenders.

The report’s most striking judgment is that in states which already have high incarceration rates, a 10 percent expansion in the prison population can probably only achieve a 2 to 4 percent reduction in crime. There are diminishing returns to incarceration, and much of the country may already be far along the curve. That’s author Don Stemen’s consensus reading of the best available social science, with the important caveat that some research suggests that more incarceration might actually increase crime.

Where and when the point of maximum benefit is reached in a given community varies according to a number of variables that even the social scientists can’t reach a consensus on. But the authors think that it lies somewhere between 325 and 492 inmates per 100,000 people. We ran the state numbers to see this region’s proportion, which shows that Virginia and Maryland are both below that threshold — approximately 230 in the Virginia using the latest Department of Corrections figures, and 200 in Maryland. But other states, such as New Jersey (315) and New York (300), are right on the edge.

The report offers no silver-bullet alternative to incarceration, but the familiar and obvious possibility is fielding larger police forces. More police deter crime and build safer community environments. One leading study shows that a 10 percent increase in the size of a city’s police force is associated with 11 percent fewer violent crimes and 3 percent fewer property crimes. In other words, all else held equal, the average crime-fighting dollar may now be better spent on more police than on keeping criminals in prison. The report also notes the strong correlation between decreased crime and economic growth, lower unemployment rates, higher real wages and higher high-school graduation rates. Good things go together.

If the cost of jailing additional criminals outweighs the benefit in crime reduction, or if cities and states can get more bang for their buck by hiring more police — something we have advocated repeatedly for the District — then it’s well worth a policy change. Far from soft on crime, that would be smart.

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