CRF Blog

Nine Lessons About Criminal Justice Reform

by Bill Hayes

Writing for the Marshall Project, Bill Keller explains Nine Lessons About Criminal Justice Reform.

Lesson 1: It is possible to reduce incarceration and crime at the same time.

Between 2010 and 2015, 31 states reduced both crime and imprisonment. In the 10 states with the largest declines in imprisonment, the crime rate fell an average of more than 14 percent.

This obviously does not mean that reducing incarceration necessarily leads to a drop in crime. Correlation is not causation. The question of why the crime rate declined is a subject of heated debate among social scientists. One of my colleagues at The Marshall Project wrote a piece we called “10 Not Entirely Crazy Theories Explaining the Great Crime Decline.” One thesis our writer examined is that after Roe v. Wade the legalization of abortion meant fewer unwanted children who were more likely to become delinquents. Other researchers have surmised that removing lead from paint and fuel has made for a less criminogenic environment. Another theory credits technology: anti-theft devices in cars and the spread of online banking made it harder for criminals to profit. Most experts give some credit to the increased deployment and improved equipping of police. And, of course, some of the decline is a result of the fact that more bad guys were locked up — though that is an expensive way to keep communities safe.

Whatever the factors responsible for the relatively low crime rate, the evidence from the states is that reducing incarceration is compatible with reducing crime. Obviously, a lot depends on how you reduce prison populations, which is where the states have much to teach us. [more]