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November 08, 2004




Ever since a September 1997 headline that read “Crime Rates are Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling,” (as if the two trends were unrelated) the Times has been willfully naïve on the connection between more criminals being in prison and a corresponding drop in the number of crimes being committed.


Other factors might be:

Reform: Longer prison sentences, while boosting the prision population, may allow various training and behavior modification programs to work, while shorter terms might not. If it takes 4 years to complete college maybe it takes at least as long to unlearn crime habits and learn instead productive citizen habits. So, with more prisoners in custody longer the programs work better and the crime rate drops? Plausible? How would we go about testing the notion?

Recidivism: If reform doesn't happen maybe, at least, the longer terms hold those who would otherwise be loose and committing new crimes out of the crime market. Say a worker in the theft and strong-arm assault industry typically alternated two years in prison with two years on the street in his most "productive" years between 18 and 40. He'd have 22 years of active career crime. If the length of incarceration increases (which would keep the population in prison higher) while the term of "employment" between convictions is two years, then average "productive" years per crime-worker are cut to about 7 while each spends 15 or so in prison. Again, this seems like something we ought to be able to design experiments around.

Deterence: Perhaps a marginal worker choosing between the crime industry and an opportunity in fast food, big-box retailing, or car wash machine operation is influenced by the increassing cost to him of a potential conviction. While not directly affecting the worker who chooses an honest life over the life of crime, we'd see that the longer terms and the fuller prisons would lead to fewer workers choosing the profession of thuggery. Game theorists working with college freshmen volunteers maybe could model the process....

Or it might be some subtle combination of effects.
I think, given a few million dollars in federal funding and a 10-year-long project I could establish something or other on the matter. (Sort of like the experts who determined that teenagers who watched more sexy television programs were more likely to engage in sex themselves than their peers who did not watch TV.)

NYC Conservative

Not only has the NY Times been doing this same story yearly, it's being done by the same reporter every year: Fox Butterfield. Don't waste your time with this one. He's ineducable.

halfvast conspirator

"Despite drop in HIV infections, free clean-needle distributions increase." (Maybe that parallel headline would generate the paradigm shift.)


"Despite Drop in STD Infections, an Increase in Monogamous Relationships"

Hard to believe, I know.

Jim Glass

Butterfield buries the lede in this lazy, stereotypical story.

Way down at the bottom he has a throwaway line "new prisoners declined 2.8 in New York due to the fall in the crime rate." Huh?

Hey, Fox, it's not "new" prisoners -- NYC is *selling off excess prison space* because the prison population in both NYC and NYS has been falling for years.

I've put the data and the implications here:

You'd think that with Fox writing for a New York paper, and being so concerned about the prison population, he might have noted this.

He could even have had an *original* story as a journalist, "To Reduce Prison Population, Reduce Crime, New York Shows".

Maybe there's a causal sequence that works *over time* along the lines of: more sentencing now deters crime, so there'll be less crime and less sentencing later?

That may be far too advanced for a guy who can't even grasp the notion that taking criminals off the street might reduce crime now, but still...

I also enjoyed how he went out to Carnegie Mellon to get an academic to say tough sentencing is "self defeating" because it is supposed to deter crime by creating a "stigma", but there's no stigma if all your friends have been to jail too.

Stigma? I'd have thought tough sentencing might deter crime by people wanting to stay the hell *out of jail*!

Do you suppose there are any working professional law enforcement people here in NYC, where the prison population is going down, whom Fox might have talked to about that for a balancing quote? ;-)

BTW, if that link above is too long and scrolls off the side, just hit www.scrivener.net -- if you're lucky you might land on the post with the picture of Tara and her bare scarred boob.


Say, did anyone notice this one in the NYT article:

"Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, said one of the most striking findings in the report was that almost 10 percent of all American black men ages 25 to 29 were in prison.

"Such a high proportion of young black men behind bars not only has a strong impact on black families, Professor Blumstein said, but "in many ways is self-defeating." The criminal justice system is built on deterrence, with being sent to prison supposedly a stigma, he said. "But it's tough to convey a sense of stigma when so many of your friends and neighbors are similarly stigmatized."

So the idea is that we can't put people in prison after a certain number because at that point it's no longer a stigma. Who are the lucky ones who have a "stay out of jail free" card? And who are the unfortunate law-abiding blacks who are going to be victimized by these same people? The National Crime Victimization Survey reports that about 85% of completed violent crimes against blacks are committed by blacks.

As a general principle, when people claim to speak for blacks (or other minorities) by advocating for felons, they are a fraud at best.


Dear God, they're beyond parody: "More rain, yet lakes are full." Sheesh.

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