Less Imprisonment Does Not Mean More Crime

There’s a very important post from Wonkblog‘s Emily Badger today about a Sentencing Project report on crime trends in New York and New Jersey, states that have significantly reduced their prison populations:

[T]he Sentencing Project points out that declining violent crime rates in New York and New Jersey have actually outpaced the national trend, even as these states have reduced their prison populations through changing law enforcement and sentencing policies.

We certainly can’t…conclude that reducing prison populations reduces crime. But these trends do make it harder to argue the opposite — particularly in the most heavily incarcerated country in the world.

What this means is that the most intuitively plausible rationale for heavy incarceration–the “sequestration” argument that, in the long-ago words of William F. Buckley, “it’s better to have criminals strolling the corridors of Sing Sing than the sidewalks of New York”–is springing leaks. At some point, you’re just locking people up with no regard for the actual impact on public safety. We’ve long since reached that point, and need to adjust sentencing policies accordingly.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.