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 the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. 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, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.