Recessions Do Not Reduce The Prison Population

Recessions do not cause the prison population to fall

Every time the economy stalls, journalists start predicting that crime will soar as a result, even though the historical record completely disconfirms such an equation (as Mark Kleiman has pointed out repeatedly). A trendy extension of this false meme, which gets an airing in Mike Konczal’s balanced Washington Post piece, is that hard economic times caused the recent drop in the prison population.

No, they didn’t. Forgive me please for self-quoting:

The number of people incarcerated went up every single year from the mid 1970s until 2009. Over that more than 30 year period, there have been economic booms and contractions, changes in the relative strength of the major political parties, alterations in the demographic makeup of the US general population, the waxing and waning of drug epidemics, and countless other changes in American life.

The prison population started rising during the mid-1970s oil shock and kept right on rising during the recessions of 1980, 1981-1982, 1990-1991 and 2001. If we want to explain a historic reversal of a multi-decade trend, we cannot logically do it by pointing to a factor that occurred repeatedly — a lousy economy — while that trend was underway.

Look instead for more novel factors to explain why the incarceration rate is finally falling, such as the lowest crime rates we have had in generations, lower fear of crime than in generations, the emergence of effective alternatives to incarceration, and/or, if Kevin Drum is right, the dramatic reduction in lead in the environment.

UPDATE: In response to me, Mike argues that the Great Recession was different than prior recessions in being more severe, and so it did indeed reduce the prison population. The problem with this riposte is that if it is only severe economic shocks that shrink prison populations, then there should have been a huge decrease in incarceration during The Great Depression. But that is precisely the reverse of what actually happened.

SECOND UPDATE: Kevin Drum agrees that the case is not made for recessions, but dings me for saying “novel factors” when of course falling crime is a long-invoked, rational explanation. Fair comment by Kevin and bad writing by me. I mean novel not in the sense that no one had invoked it as an explanation before, but in the sense of something not present as a policy force before. We are in the midst of a multi-decade crime drop — that is novel and could explain why we are seeing something else change for the first time in a long time.