The proportion of Americans doing time behind bars is falling, and that is something seemingly worthy of applause. Before patting ourselves on the back, though, we should look a little deeper. The reason for the “vacancy” sign on the cell door is not necessarily that we as a people are behaving ourselves. Rather, it’s the case that prison becomes passe when a society can no longer distinguish between right and wrong. Rampant lawlessness is a national-security issue.
A newly published Pew Research Center survey finds that the U.S. incarceration rate has steadily declined in recent years. In 1995, the rate stood at 810 inmates per 100,000 population. From there, it climbed to 1,000 per 100,000 from 2006 to 2008, before sliding back by 2019 to where it measured nearly a quarter-century ago. And even while the nation’s population has swelled, the total number of inmates also declined, falling from a peak of 2.3 million in 2008 to 2.1 million in 2019.
None of these statistics are recent enough to account for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 and has agonizingly persisted ever since. COVID-19 fears were cited as the rationale for cities, counties, states, and even the federal government to release hundreds of thousands of inmates from jails and prisons, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. It also led prosecutors to refrain from seeking jail time for nonviolent offenses, like drug possession, in the first place. And many arrested for unhinged behavior like rioting and looting likewise dodged prison when nationwide hysterics over racial injustice claims rendered police too intimidated to enforce the law.
It should be no surprise, then, that as incarceration rates have declined, crime has surged. The FBI’s Preliminary Uniform Crime Report for 2020, released last September, showed a 15 percent rise in murder and non-negligent manslaughter, based on reports from 12,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Additionally, a preliminary study of crime statistics for the first half of 2021 shows the jarring carnage persists. This year, murders in 29 major cities have spiked 16 percent over the same period in 2020, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Gun assaults and aggravated assaults have likewise climbed 5 percent and 9 percent, respectively.
Moreover, fresh episodes of violent behavior may be ready to erupt across the country. The Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin last week warning of a “heightened threat environment” from terrorists, both domestic and foreign, leading up to the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. And that alert was released before the Taliban’s stunning reconquest of Afghanistan, led by terrorists whom a naïve America, yes, released from jail.
When incarceration rates decline owing to the citizenry’s flourishing respect for the law, the American way of life is affirmed. When crime becomes rampant and yet fewer lawbreakers are imprisoned, the nation’s security is forfeited.