Crime, De-Incarceration and the Economy

The estimable Zusha Elinson has a solid piece out at WSJ on the very happy news that California’s violent crime rate has dropped to a level not seen since 1967. Further, after rising slightly in 2012, the property crime rate resumed the downward course it has been on for some years. As Zusha notes, this fall in crime has occurred while de-incarceration has been underway:

The state-prison population has dropped by about 25,000 since 2011, when California embarked on a policy of “realignment,” which has moved some nonviolent offenders to counties.

The shift has resulted in thousands of people on the street who in the past would have been behind bars. To be sure, the county-jail population has grown by about 10,000. But some counties have been forced to release offenders because of overcrowding, while others are choosing rehabilitation programs over incarceration. In 2013, researchers found that 18,000 offenders who would have been in either prison or jail in years past weren’t serving time behind bars.

The article quotes Magnus Lofstrom explaining the 2013 drop as an effect of county rehabilitation programs and “an improving economy”. The former explanation is credible. The latter explanation is invoked almost daily to explain why incarceration can go down without crime going up in response, so it’s important to emphasize that — as counter-intuitive as it may sound — there is no evidence that a bad economy causes an increase in crime. To quote our own Mark Kleiman:

The Roaring Twenties were a high-crime period; the Great Depression was mostly peaceful. The economically stagnant Eisenhower era had crime rates at historic lows; the Kennedy-Johnson boom in economic growth accompanied an explosion in crime rates. The Great Crime Decline didn’t pause for the recession of 2000-2001.

The decline of crime and incarceration in tandem is thus not a special circumstance produced by an improving economy. Rather, it’s an entirely expected outcome of releasing people who didn’t need to be behind bars and instead providing supervision and rehabilitation services for them in the community.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.