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The Cautionary Instruction: The paradox of falling crime and crowded prisons

Friday, 19 September 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released two reports this week that appear to be in conflict with one another. Crime rates are down for 2013, but incarceration rates are up. Locking up a few thousand more people is not going to make crime rates fall, but it begs the question -- if there are fewer crimes shouldn’t there be less people in jail?

The nation's violent crime rate declined slightly last year after two years of increases according to BJS.

BJS’s National Crime Victimization Survey found the overall violent crime rate -- which includes rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault -- declined from 26.1 victimizations per 1,000 people in 2012 to 23.2 per 1,000 in 2013.

The rate of violent crime in 2013 was similar to the rate in 2011 -- 22.6 per 1,000. Since 1993, the rate of violent crime has declined from 79.8 to 23.2 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older.

The victimization report is based on an annual scientific survey of Americans on whether they had been victimized in the previous year. The interviews included about 90,630 households and 160,040 persons last year.

It differs from the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, which is based on voluntary submissions from local police departments of crimes reported to them. Many criminologists consider the victimization survey a more accurate picture of the nation's crime, because the FBI's data are incomplete.

At the same time, the incarceration rate has increased. At the end of 2013, the U.S. held an estimated 1,574,700 people in state and federal prisons, an increase of approximately 4,300 prisoners, about a three percent increase from 2012. This was the first increase reported since the peak of 1,615,500 prisoners in 2009.

The incarceration totals rose in 27 states. With at least 700,000 in local jails, not included in the BJS report, the national total behind bars remains well over 2 million. Only six states had fewer prisoners at the end of 2013 as compared to 2000.

Critics question why more people should be behind bars while crime is dropping.

Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report, suggests that the basic answer is that there is not necessarily a connection between the two sets of numbers.

Gest wrote, “About 450,000 people entered prison last year as a result of a court sentence. That is only a small fraction of the 6.1 million violent crimes. Most crimes don't lead to arrests or prosecutions, and only some of those cases result in an offender going to prison. So it is very possible for the crime rate to be going slightly in one direction and the imprisonment rate slightly in the other, as was the case in 2013.”

(Image: Istock/Thinkstock)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.

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