Two readers have written to ask about Fox Butterfield’s story on the rising correctional population in today’s New York Times. In the face of stable-to-falling crime rates, the continued rise in the population under the supervision of the criminal justice system — now 6.9 million, more than 3% of the adult population — does seem at first blush like A Bad Thing, which is how the article portrays it.
But there’s less here than meets the eye. Of the 6.9 million, almost 5 million represents “community corretions”: probation and parole. The population actually behind bars is “only” 2.1 million.
There’s a strong argument that, having grossly under-incarcerated during the crime boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s and for a decade or so thereafter, we have now over-corrected and are over-imprisoning. Incarceration is expensive ($25,000 a year on average) and causes great suffering for those incarcerated and those who care about them. Having two million people locked up is surely nothing to be proud of.
On the other hand, neither is a high crime rate, and there’s little doubt that the combined incapacitative and deterrent effects of rising imprisonment contributed substantially to the drop in crime. We’re still underinvested in crime control generally, given how much damage crime does, both directly to victims and indirectly as a result of the things that potential victims do to avoid victimization, such as moving their homes, their shopping, and their workplaces to safer neighborhoods. The $50 billion a year we spend on locking people up is half a percent of GDP.
As for those not in prison or jail but on probation or parole, surely it is better for those who have committed crimes to be punished and supervised a little bit rather than not at all. Given how concentrated serious crime is among repeat offenders, community corrections could make a big contribution to crime control if we learned to do it right. What’s shocking about the 4 million people on probation is how little probation does to punish them, to restrain them from continued crime or even the continued use of expensive illicit drugs, or to provide the services they need if they are to rejoin straight society. (I tried to lay out an optimal community corrections program in this UCLA Law Review article.)
So while the fact that so many Americans commit crimes is something to be concerned about, the fact that so many offenders are on probation or parole really isn’t.