Imprisonment and Crime Rates


Randall G. Shelden


There has been a considerable amount of research and commentary in recent years concerning the connection between the rise in imprisonment rates and the drop in crime.  The debate brings to the forefront an old conflict between conservative and liberal thinking about crime.  From the conservative view, the best way to deal with crime is to increase punishment – either through increasing use of the death penalty, longer sentences for certain crimes and/or offenders, or use of imprisonment for more convicted criminals.  From the liberal perspective, the best way to respond to crime is to concentrate on alternatives to imprisonment, improvement of various “life chances” (e.g., more education, more jobs, etc.) or a general improvement in socio-economic conditions (e.g., decreasing poverty rates and social inequality).


    Perhaps a major cause for the recent flurry of research on this question was the noteworthy drop in crime rates throughout the country during the 1990s while incarceration rates were going up.  At first glance it appears that there was a correlation, since the overall crime rate (index crimes known to the police) dropped by 26% between 1990 and 1999; violent crimes went down by 28% (the murder rate dropped by 39%); property crime declined by 26%.[1]  Meanwhile, during the exact same period the nation’s incarceration rate increased by 56%.[2]  Looking at these figures it is hard not to conclude that more people in prison equals less crime.


    However, there is a tendency to use time periods that conveniently suit one’s particular hypothesis.  Consider this fact: during the 1980s the overall incarceration went up by 114%, while the crime rate dropped by only 2% (in other words, virtually no change); during this same period of time the rate of violent crime actually increased by 22%, while property crime went down by about 6%.[3] A colleague and I examined an even longer period of time – 1971-2000 – and found that the overall crime rate remained virtually the same, while the national incarceration rate went up by almost 500% (494%).[4]


    One obvious question comes to mind: why does putting more people behind bars lead to a drop in crime during one period, but not during another period? 


Recent Research


    What prompted me to write about this was that I was on a panel at our local National Public Radio channel and a staff member of the Heritage Foundation was on the line supporting the notion that crime goes down if we put more people behind bars, citing a study by Marvell and Moody.[5]  I decided to look into this more closely. 


    It just so happens that there was a special issue of Criminology and Public Policy that devoted some space to this question.  A total of four articles appeared, all of which seriously challenged the thesis that more prisoners equals less crime.[6] For example, a study by Kovandzic and Vieraitis began with the assumption that since most offenders commit their crimes close to where they live,[7] the incarceration rates at the county level would be the most appropriate to use.[8]  Using data on prisoners sentenced in each county in the state of Florida between 1980 and 2000 they found no statistically significant relationships between imprisonment rates and crime, holding constant several other variables (e.g., age, race, poverty rate, unemployment rate, female headed households). 


    This research obviously poses a serious challenge to prior research on this issue.  Prior research has estimated the crime reducing capabilities of increasing imprisonment rates from about 3 index crimes per year reduction to 187 per year reduction.[9]Most researchers, however, have questioned these high estimates, with most finding at best a modest effect.[10]


    A very unique study looked at the incarceration rate and crime rate relationship involving both juveniles and adults.  Males, Macallair and Corcoran examined both juvenile and adult incarceration rates and crime in the state of California. They noted that from 1980 and 2005 the juvenile incarceration rate declined by almost 60%.  During that same period of time juvenile felony arrest rates dropped by 57%. For adults, there was a 500% increase in imprisonment rates and a 13% increase in the adult felony arrest rate.[11] The data cannot be much clearer than this.


Backfire: Increase in prisoners equals increase in crime


    What I find most intriguing about some of the more recent studies is that increasing the number of prisoners may in fact “backfire” and cause crime to increase.  The term “backfire” was first used by Todd Clear to describe this phenomenon.[12] Clear argues that there are three “crime-enhancing effects” of increasing use of incarceration.  First, since most crimes occur in groups (e.g., gangs) when one is put in prison another will take his place.  Similarly, in the illegal drug business, when one dealer gets put in prison someone just takes over his territory (just like if one legitimate business fails, another one will fill the gap).  Second, as more people experience prison, then the negative effects (and hence the deterrent value) begin to decline. Several decades of research on prison life has documented this.[13]  Third, social factors known to cause crime (e.g., broken families, inequality, and unemployment) tend to increase in those communities most impacted by high incarceration rates (e.g., certain low income areas).


    The most recent study documenting this phenomenon was done by Liedka, Piehl and Useem, published in the afore-mentioned Criminology and Public Policy.[14] Looking at data covering a 30-year period, these researchers found that after an initial decrease in crime due to rising imprisonment rates, the “tide has turn” so to speak as the connection becomes not just weaker (in a statistical sense) but actually makes things worse.  In other words, they argue that we have already reached a point of diminishing returns. 


    What has confounded the effects of rising incarceration rates is the increase of drug offenders and low-level offenders.  An analysis by Shepherd found that the proportion of drug offenders sentenced to prison almost tripled from 1985 and 1995 for state prisons and doubled for federal prisons.  During this time period drug offenders accounted for about 75% of the increase in federal prisons and one-third in state prisons.  As for low-level offenders, the average time served by public order offenders increased by 162% during the 1990s. The average time served for drug offenders went up by 52% during this same time.[15]  


    The same conclusions were drawn from a study by the Sentencing Project.[16]  The study focused especially on the 1990s, but also on the period from 1984 to 1998.  Examining each state’s crime rate and rate of imprisonment they found that from 1991 to 1998 the states that experienced the largest increase in imprisonment had smaller declines in their crime rates than states that experienced the smallest increases in imprisonment rates.  On the surface this may still support the conservative argument since crime still declined while incarceration went up.


    However, the researchers found that between 1984 and 1998 while incarceration rose steadily, crime went up during the first half of this period and then went down during the second half.


    Looking at individual states during the 1991-1998 period the study noted several states experienced an increase in violent crime while incarceration rates were rising.  For instance, in West Virginia the incarceration rate went up by 131%, second only to Texas (up 144%) during this period yet saw their violent crime rate go up by 30%.  North Dakota’s incarceration rate went up by 88% (the 5th highest rate increase in the nation), yet their violent crime rate went up by 37%.  Mississippi’s incarceration rate went up by 74% yet their overall crime rate went up by 4% (violent crime went up by 6%).


    The period between 1984 and 1991 was the most interesting.  As I stated earlier, if putting more criminals behind bars is the best way to reduce crime (as conservatives have argued) then why doesn’t this happen all the time?  From 1984 to 1998 the incarceration rate for the nation as a whole went up by 61%, yet the overall crime rate went up by 16%, with violent crime increasing by 34%.  Many states that experienced a substantial increase in their incarceration rates saw violent crime go up significantly.  For instance, while the incarceration rate in Missouri jumped up by 74%, their violent crime rate went up by 66%.  Arkansas saw its violent crime rate go up by 85% as its incarceration rate go up by 69%; Alabama experienced the largest increase in violent crime among all states (up by 96%) while its incarceration rate went up by 54%.  Montana appears to be the one of the few states that conformed to the conservative argument as its incarceration rate went up by 51% while its overall crime rate went down by 22% and violent crime declined by 41%.  A few states experienced an increase in incarceration rates and had a slight decrease in overall crime rates (Colorado, Alaska, Oregon, and Nevada); however, two states saw their violent crime rate go up during this time (Colorado and Nevada).


    Obviously there are many other factors that determine the changes in the rate of crime and the rate of imprisonment.  The Sentencing Project study explored this issue in detail.


Other Factors Influencing Incarceration Rates


     The drug war contributed a great deal to the rise in incarceration rates during the past two decades.  While in 1984 drug offenders were just under 8% of all state prisoners, by 1998 the proportion stood at almost 21%.  In federal prisons the rise was even more dramatic, going from about 30% to 58%.[17] 


    Another factor mentioned by the Sentencing Project study is time served.  The report noted that between 1990 and 1998 the projected time to be served before being released went from 38 to 43 months, as the number released relative to the total number in prison declined from 37% to 31%.


    Finally, perhaps the most important variable is the increase in parole violators returning to prison.  From 1990 to 1998 while the total number of new court commitments to prison in each year increased by only 7.5%, the number of parole violators sent to prison increased by 54%. A whopping 40% committed a technical violation, such as failing their drug test.[18]   Speaking of drug offenders, the number returned to state prison went up by 122% from 1990 to 1998; this accounted for more than half of the increase in parole violators who were returned to prison.[19]


    The Sentencing Project study also noted several economic factors that contributed to the decrease in crime during the 1990s.  As several other studies have noted, there were many positive changes in the economy during the 1990s, such as declining unemployment rates and a sustained economic recovery that helped even low wage earners.  They cite one study that found that unemployment rates for young males with just a high school diploma (or less) declined along with crime rates, while another study showed that about 30% of the decline in the crime rate was explained by a drop in unemployment.[20] 


    This was also one of the conclusions of an Urban Institute study.  It was noted that “as wages in the low-skill market increase, young men are less likely to engage in economically motivated crimes.”  It was estimated that a 10% increase in wages was associated with a 10% decline in economically motivated crime.  This was especially evident in connection with the crack market.  Participation in this economic activity went up as wages went down for low-skilled inner-city youth (from $9 per hour in 1979 to $6.74 in 1993).  This decline began to reverse itself in the early 1990s.[21]  This reversal also coincided with an ending of “turf battles” over the crack market, resulting in a shift of illegal drug dealing off the streets to “behind closed doors.”  It was around this time (early 1990s) that the violence associated with the crack business began to decline.[22]  Related to this is the fact that growing numbers of young people started to recognize the dangers of crack (due in no small measure to the educational efforts all over the country) resulting in a significant decline in the use of this drug.[23]


    Still another variable contributing to the drop in crime – especially violence – was a very aggressive drive to keep guns away from young people.  The success of this endeavor can be seen in the drop in the number of homicides with guns, going from more than 14,000 among those under 25 years of age in 1993 to less than 10,000 in 1998.[24] The national rate of homicides with a gun dropped from 1.4 (per 100,000) in 1990 to 0.8 in 1999, while arrests for violent crimes involving the use of a gun went from a high of 225 in 1993 to 121.5 in 1999.[25]


    Finally, various forms of “problem-oriented policing” contributed to the drop in crime in many cities.  For example, a bold initiative in Boston resulted in a 77% drop in homicide among those under 25 during the 1990s.  San Diego’s Neighborhood Policing Philosophy brought together residents in several areas, resulting in a significant drop in their crime rate.[26]


Collateral Damages


    Much has been written in recent years about a number of barriers states and the federal government has established that, in effect, have made it increasingly difficult for parolees to succeed. 


    Being convicted of a crime has always had serious consequences.  In recent years, however, the consequences have become more and more negative.  Some scholars have argued that the over-reliance of imprisonment as a form of social control has had “collateral consequences” (a term appropriately borrowed from terminology associated with war, since America has in recent years undertaken a “war on crime” and more specifically a “war on drugs”).[2]


    Jeremy Travis distinguishes between “visible” and “invisible” punishments.  While the former includes locking people up in prisons that are quite visible,[28] the latter are less obvious to the naked eye.  Travis says these punishments are “accomplished through the diminution of the rights and privileges of citizenship and legal residency in the United States.”  The laws that create these invisible punishments “operate largely beyond public view, yet have very serious, adverse consequences for the individuals affected.”  Travis also observes that these punishments take effect outside the formal court system since they are defined as “civil” and are treated as “disabilities” rather than “punishments” and are therefore merely “collateral consequences.”  Another way they are invisible is that they are not normally considered by the usual legislative committees, but are rather “often added as riders to other, major pieces of legislation, and therefore are given scant attention in the public debate over the main event.”[29]


    Travis also notes that the notion of denying offenders rights dates back as far as early Roman history when an offender’s wife was considered a widow and his children orphans; the offender was also denied entrance into certain trades.  Then during the medieval period there was a “civil death” during which the offender was denied the right to inherit property, enter into contracts and vote.[30]


    Today there are even more of these kinds of “civil deaths” where offenders can be denied public housing, welfare benefits, certain parental rights, and the ability to obtain an education through the denial of grants, among others.  Such a civil death impacts a large proportion of the population – an estimated 47 million people have criminal records, while about 13 million are either serving time or have been convicted of a felony in the past.  This amounts to what Travis calls a kind of “internal exile,” like the “mark of Cain.” where the offender becomes a “non-citizen.”[31] 


    Among the changes in the law concerning ex-cons include the following:


1.      14 states permanently deny ex-felons the right to vote;

2.      19 states allow the termination of parental rights;

3.      29 states have made a felony conviction grounds for divorce;

4.      25 states place restrictions on the right to hold public office;

5.      33 states restrict firearm ownership.[32]


At this time, let us consider in more detail some of these “collateral damages,” starting with the right to vote.




    The disenfranchisement of felons is not a new phenomenon.  This course of action dates back to Ancient Greece, a time in which criminals and convicts were pronounced “infamous” and stripped of their right to vote and suffered the loss of other rights as well.[33]  The rationale behind current disenfranchisement laws are derived from this tradition as well as others, and have stood behind the belief that disenfranchising felons is necessary in order to maintain the “purity of the ballot box.” It is believed that ex-offenders are impure due to the committing of the crime that led to their incarceration, and are incapable of voting with the rest of society and keep in accordance with “common good,” and may alter his or her vote. In 1978, the Fifth Circuit Court argued that “the state may exclude ex-offenders because they, like insane persons, have raised the questions about their ability to vote responsibly.”[34] 


    In modern times felon disenfranchisement laws have had the greatest effect on African Americans due to the fact that this minority group is disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.  As of the end of 2002, all but two states had laws that deprived felons of the right to vote while serving a prison or jail sentence for a felony offense.[35] A mid-1990s study found that while two percent of all adults have been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction (mostly drug convictions), about 13 percent of all black men have been! In six states the percentage of black men disenfranchised is 25 percent or more, going higher than 30 percent in Alabama and Florida.[36] More recent figures show that about 5 million are disenfranchised as of 2004, with 2 million being African Americans.[37] The disenfranchisement rate for African American males is nearly twice that of whites.  In some states that disenfranchise felons indefinitely, up to 40% of African American men may permanently lose their right to vote.[38] Disenfranchisement has no deterrent effect, and does little but make the ex-offender feel less like an average citizen and even more isolated.


    The impact of the high disenfranchisement rate for African-Americans was especially felt during the 2000 election. Greg Palast, in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, brings forth strong evidence that more than 50,000 people were “purged” from the voting rolls just before the 2000 elections.  This purge was done by state officials, such as Katherine Harris and George W. Bush’s brother Jeb.  Most of those purged were blacks, who supposedly were ex-felons.  Upon closer investigation most were not ex-felons at all, and most were purged for merely being black.  The evidence Palast brings forth is quite convincing.  For instance, he discovered that in mostly white counties about 1 in 500 ballots were not counted (“spoiled” they call it); in mostly black counties, one out of every eight were not counted. Palast produces documents from Katherine Harris’ office that proves his point.  As everyone knows by now, most of these purged black citizens would have voted for Al Gore.  Many were thought to have been convicted of a felony, but it turned out that 90% were innocent; over half were black or Hispanic voters, and mostly Democrats.  Bush won Florida by 537 votes.[39]


    A very sophisticated analysis of the 2000 vote found that had ex-felons been allowed to vote Al Gore would have won the presidency that year.[40]  Specifically, after controlling for other variables (including the fact that many ex-felons fail to vote) the researchers found that “felon disenfranchisement has provided a small but clear advantage to Republican candidates in every presidential and senatorial election from 1972 to 2000.”[41]  In the 2000 election, Florida was the key state and officially Bush won the electoral votes.  However, as this study proves, had disenfranchised felons been allowed to vote, “Gore would certainly have carried the state, and the election.”  This is because there were, at that time, more disenfranchised felons in Florida (827,000) than in any other state.  Given the estimated rate of voter turnout (27.2%) and the overall Democratic preference, Gore would have won by more than 80,000 votes.  Even considering an even lower estimated turnout for ex-felons (13.6%), Gore would have won by about 40,000 votes.[42]  The researchers who did this study commented on the implications of their study as follows:


Although we have specified the political consequences of felon disenfranchisement, we have only touched on the origins of these laws and the mass incarceration phenomenon that gives such force to them today. These questions are important for situating felon disenfranchisement within a broader model of social control of dispossessed groups.  Proponents of the “new penology” argue that the focus of criminological interest has recently shifted from the rehabilitation of individual offenders to the social control of aggregate groups.  The correctional population is subject to a number of exclusions: They are often ineligible for federal grants (such as Pell Grants), they have restricted access to social programs, they face sharp disadvantages in the labor market, and they must live with the social stigma associate with a felony conviction. Restricted access to the ballot box is but a piece of a larger pattern of social exclusion for America’s vast correctional population.[43]



    It is important to emphasize here that the right to vote has been one of the central and most important features of democratic societies.  The importance of this right is demonstrated in the struggles for women, blacks and others to gain this right.  It cannot be denied that one method of controlling a given population is by excluding them from participation in this most fundamental aspect of civil society.  This is what was done for more than 100 years following the end of the Civil War, as former slaves were prohibited from voting through various mechanisms, such as the “grandfather clause” (an ex-slave could only vote if his grandfather was once a registered voter – an obvious “catch-22”) and various sorts of “tests” that ex-slaves were subjected to (e.g., reading ability, knowledge of the Constitution).   Some of these kinds of methods have resurfaced in recent years as far as ex-felons are concerned.  A recent study found that some states have instituted various “character tests” for ex-felons, for which blacks are especially vulnerable.  In Florida, for example, ex-felons are asked if they drink alcohol, while in Kentucky an ex-felon has to provide letters of reference concerning his or her “good character” to be able to register.[44] 


The Impact on Informal Social Controls


    Rose and Clear contend that one of the impacts of an over-reliance on incarceration as a form of social control undermines a community’s attempts to use informal methods of control.[45]  This in turn leads to more, rather than less, social disorganization. This idea runs counter to “common sense” notions that tell us that removing “bad elements” from a community makes things safer.  This is because high incarceration rates actually contribute to such problems as inequality, family deterioration (e.g., where a father or a mother gets sent to prison), economic problems, etc.  Human and social capital becomes weakened in communities with the highest incarceration rates.


    The increasing tendency to house prisoners in far-away rural communities amounts to what he calls “coercive mobility” that has a negative impact on informal methods of social control in poor communities.  In many poor neighborhoods, up to 25 percent of the adult males are behind bars on any given day.  This results in the removal of both human capital and social capital from these communities.[46]  An estimated $25,000 per year leaves the community for every man who is incarcerated and this money goes directly to the communities that have the prisons.[47]


    Incarceration affects three major disorganizing factors originally identified by Shaw and McKay.[48]  First, incarceration results in an alteration of both the labor market and the marriage market.[49]  Second, there is an increase in transience in that there is a constant movement in and out of prison: as one person enters prison, someone else is released.  This in turn leads to the third factor, namely that as new people move in the neighborhoods become increasingly heterogeneous as far as cultural norms and values are concerned.  Part of this is caused by the impact of the prison subculture on individuals, so that upon release they often bring with them prison norms and values.  


Denial of Public Housing


    One of the biggest challenges that a recently released offender may face upon release is the inability to find and sustain adequate housing.  Housing is very necessary as a means of survival for everyone, ex-offender or not.  The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 12 percent of United States prisoners are homeless upon release from prison.[50] Upon release, ex-offenders have no resources and many lack the skills necessary to apply for employment which will provide him or her with the income needed to afford adequate housing.   Aside from that issue, parolees have to deal with the stigma attached to being an ex-offender which may make finding employment impossible. This in turn will make finding and paying for housing impossible as well.  For this very reason, one of the few alternatives available to someone in this position would be federally subsidized housing which was designed to provide decent and affordable housing for low income people and families. But, because of the implementation of the “one-strike” policies during the Clinton administration, federal housing may no longer be an option for those convicted of a drug offense.


    The “one-strike” policies were designed to bring peace, order and crime reduction to public housing in urban areas.  In order to do so, policies were designed which targeted those with involvement or prior involvement in drug trafficking, drug use and violent crime.  Under this policy, the housing authority has the right to deny housing to:


1.   Those who have been evicted from public housing because of drug-related criminal activity for a period of three years following eviction.


2.   Those that have in the past engaged in a pattern of disruptive alcohol consumption or illegal drug use, regardless of how long ago such conduct occurred.


  1. The catch all category of those who have engaged in any drug-related criminal activity, any violent activity or any other criminal activity if the public housing authority deems them a safety risk.[51]


    Although the housing authority has been asked to consider the circumstances surrounding the crime and to also take into consideration whether or not the applicant has been rehabilitated or not, most fail to do so.  There is no system of checks and balances when it comes to the housing authority and their decision making practices, which allows most local housing authority agencies to be as stringent as they choose.


    The harshness of this policy is a damaging consequence for offenders, especially those convicted of a drug offense.  Not only are ex-offenders unable to find housing but they are unable to live with family members that reside in public housing without putting the entire family at risk for eviction.  Being denied public housing and being denied the right to reside with a family that lives in public housing will in time force the ex-offender onto the streets, or into a homeless shelter which will more than likely be overcrowded.  Lack of housing is an issue that affects not only the offender, but the offender’s family and community as well.  With out adequate housing, many are left displaced and are forced to live on the streets making citizens of the community fearful of crime. 


    Many other studies have documented the importance of finding shelter.  A study of a cohort of prisoners released from New York State prisons and who ended up in New York City (where the majority of that state’s prisoners live) found that 11.4 percent ended up in a homeless shelter and that of this group one-third were sent back to prison within a two year period.[52]


    A Human Rights Watch report concluded that “recidivism becomes a self fulfilling prophecy when offenders are released from incarceration with scant survival options.”[53]  With no income and no place to live, many are forced to go back to committing the crimes for which they were originally imprisoned. 


Denial of Other Federal Benefits


    In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was passed. Under this act, those that were convicted of a felony drug offense are barred from receiving welfare benefits, specifically cash benefits and food stamps.  Depending on the state in which the ex-offender resides, this ban could last a lifetime.  This law also replaced individual welfare entitlement with blocks grants known as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).[54]  Under TANF, welfare recipients must work in order to receive benefits and may only receive benefits for a five-year period.  The welfare reform law of 1996 “requires that states permanently bar individuals with drug-related felony convictions from receiving federally funded public assistance and food stamps during their lifetime.”  Also, those who violate probation or parole conditions become “temporarily” ineligible for TANF, food stamps, Social Security benefits, and public housing.[55]  With no place to live, is it any wonder that so many ex-cons find their way back into the “old bag” in order to merely survive.  One interesting irony is that murderers and other violent felons may be eligible for some of these benefits, but not drug offenders.


    When ex-offenders attempt to renter society they have little or no money and may not have the skills necessary to gain employment.  For that very reason, public aid is a tool that is necessary for successful reentry but is readily denied.  Low-income individuals are those that are in desperate need of these benefits, and without such supports recidivism is highly likely to occur.[56]


    Denying an ex-offender such as food stamps affects not only the ex-offender, but the entire household as well.  The stress of reentering society is often compounded when having to deal with matters such as feeding one’s family. Such denial increases the chance of re-offending, which in turn diverts taxpayer dollars into the criminal justice system.  


    In 1988, the Denial of Federal Benefits Program was established under section 5301 of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (Public Law 100-690). This act provided federal and state courts “the ability to deny all or selected federal benefits to individuals convicted of drug trafficking or drug possession.”[57]  The rationale appears to be that the threat of denial of these benefits will act as a deterrent to drug use and sales. Ironically, although the aim was also to save tax dollars, given the high recidivism rate, tax dollars are spent anyway through the arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of parole violators.  Another “collateral consequence” is the fact that under this program, students are ineligible for student financial aid if convicted of a drug offense.  An ex-offender who desires to pursue a college degree upon release is out of luck.[58] 




    It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the entire criminal justice system – in fact our entire system of punishment – is based upon the idea of deterrence.   According to this line of thinking, a potential criminal will decide against committing a crime because the punishment would be too costly. Under this doctrine criminal behavior (like all human behavior) is a rational choice, born of free will. Such a view argues that the best way to deter - that is, prevent - crime from occurring is the threat of punishment or the fear that one will be caught and punished.  There are two kinds of deterrence.  General deterrence is aimed toward the population as a whole.  Thus, you punish one person in the hopes that others will “get the message” and refrain from committing crime.  Special deterrence is that you punish a specific individual in the hopes that he or she will “learn their lesson” and not do it again. 


    Both kinds of deterrence are behind the movement in recent years to increase the amount of punishment meted out by the courts, especially the greater use of imprisonment.  The fact that national recidivism rates have been around 65 to 70 percent during the past 40 years should put several nails into the coffin of the deterrence doctrine.  Several more nails should be added simply because the increasing levels of punishment have had little impact on the crime problem and in fact may have caused an increase in crime.


    It is time we became smart about crime instead of tough.  There are plenty of alternatives to incarceration and long sentences.  These alternatives can be found within any cursory review of the vast literature on the subject, some of which has been referenced in this paper.  Those who make the key decisions on crime policies certainly know of these alternatives, but have apparently chosen to ignore them because it might make them look “weak” or “soft” on crime.  Sadly, the blood of thousands of victims drips from the roofs of their legislative offices.




[1]  Sourcebook on Criminal Justice Statistics:


[2] Ibid,


[3]  Ibid.


[4]  Shelden, R. G. and W. B. Brown (2004).  Criminal Justice in America: A Critical View.  Boston: Allyn and Bacon.


[5]  Marvell, T. B. and C. E. Moody, Jr. (1994).  “Prison population growth and crime reduction.”  Journal of Quantitative Criminology 10: 109-140.  The person from the Heritage Foundation is David B. Muhlhausen.  See his article “Changing Crime Rates: Ineffective Law Enforcement Grants and the Prison Buildup.”  Washington: Heritage Foundation, February 12, 2007.


[6]  It is interesting to note that Muhlhausen did not give reference to this issue of the journal.  


[7] Evidence of this can be found in: Baldwin, J. and A. E. Bottoms (1976). The Urban Criminal: A Study in Sheffield.  London: Tavistock; Wright, R. and S. Decker (1997). Armed Robbers in Action. Boston: Northeastern University Press.  For the latest, see Langan, P. A. and D. J. Levin (2002). “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994.”  Bureau of Justice Statistics.  - less than 8% of released prisoners commit new crimes in a state other than the one where they went to prison.


[8] Kovandzic, T. V. and L. M. Vieraitis (2006).  “The effect of county-level prison population growth on crime rates.”  Criminology and Public Policy 5: 213-243.


[9] The high range comes from Zedlewski, E. W. (1987). Making Confinement Decisions: The Economics of Disincarceration.  Washington, DC: National Criminal Justice Reference Service. The low estimate comes from Greenberg, D. F. (1975). “The incapacitative effects of imprisonment: Some estimates.” Law and Society Review 9: 541-586.  Other studies, showing varying estimates include the following: Levitt, S. D. (1996).  “The effect of prison population size on crime rates: Evidence from prison overcrowding litigation.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 111: 319-351; Devine, J. A., J. F. Sheley, and M. D. Smith (1988). “Macroeconomic and social-control policy influences on crime rate changes, 1948-1985.” American Sociological Review 53: 407-420; Cohen, L. E. and K. C. Land (1987).  “Age structure and crime: Symmetry versus asymmetry and the projection of crime rates through the 1990s.”  American Sociological Review 52: 170-183.


[10]  See, for example, DeFina, R. H. and T. M. Arvanties (2002).  “The weak effect of imprisonment on crime: 1971-1998.”  Social Science Quarterly 83: 635-653; Levitt, “The effect of prison population size on crime rates.”


[11] Males, M., D. Macallair and M. Corcoran (forthcoming).  “Testing Incapacitation Theory: Youth Crime and Incarceration in California.”  In Shelden, R. G. and D. Macallair (Eds.), Juvenile Justice in American Society: Problems and Prospects.  Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press. For immediate access to this article go to the following web site:


[12]  Clear, T. (1996). “Backfire: When incarceration increases crime.”  Journal of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Research Consortium, 3, 2 (August): 1-10.


[13]  For reviews of this research see, for instance, Irwin. J. (2005). The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class.  Los Angeles: Roxbury Press; Allen, H. E. and C. E. Simonsen (1998).  Corrections in America (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall; Austin, J. and J. Irwin (2001). It's About Time: America's Imprisonment Binge (3rd ed.).  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; Johnson, R. (2002).  Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.


[14] Liedka, R. V., A. M. Piehl, and B. Useem (2006).  “The crime-control effect of incarceration: Does scale matter?”  Criminology and Public Policy 5: 245-276.


[15]  Shepherd, J. (2006). “The imprisonment puzzle: Understanding how prison growth affects crime.” Criminology and Public Policy 5: 285-298.


[16] Gainsborough, J. and M. Mauer (2000).  “Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s.”  Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.


[17] Ibid.


[18]  Many other studies have noted the increase in parole violators going to prison.  See for instance the following: Austin, J. and J. Irwin (2001).  It’s About Time: American’s Incarceration Binge (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; Richards, S., J. Austin and R. S. Jones (2004). “Kentucky’s Perpetual Prisoner Machine: It’s About Money.”  Policy Review Journal 21, 1:93-106.


[19] Gainsborough and Mauer, “Diminishing Returns.”


[20] The studies cited were: Bernstein, J. and E. Houston (2000).  Crime and Work: What We Can Learn from the Low-Wage Labor Market. Washington: Economic Policy Institute; Freeman, R. and W. Rodgers III (1999).  Area Economic Conditions and the Labor Market Outcomes of Young Men in the 1990s.  Washington: National Bureau of Economic Research.


[21] Travis, J. and M. Waul (2002).  Reflections on the Crime Decline: Lessons for the Future?  Washington: Urban Institute, pp. 14-15.


[22] Gainsborough and Mauer, “Diminishing Returns.”


[23] Travis and Waul, Reflections on the Crime Decline.


[24] For evidence of this see Blumstein, A. and R. Rosenfeld (1998). Assessing Recent Ups and Downs in U.S. Homicide Rates.  Washington: National Consortium on Violence Research.


[25] Travis and Waul, Reflections on the Crime Decline.


[26]  Gainsborough and Mauer, “Diminishing Returns,” citing Greene, J. (1999).  “Zero Tolerance: A Case Study of Police Policies and Practices in New York City.”  Crime and Delinquency 54, 2 (April).


[27] Mauer, M. and M. Chesney-Lind (eds.), Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment.  New York: New Press, 2002.


[28]  Indeed, prisons occupy a clearly demarcated “space” within both the urban and rural landscape.  While some are tucked away in very remote areas, most are clearly visible “edifices” that seem to rise up from out of nowhere. The very structure of modern prisons seem to serve as imposing messages to the general population that herein are found the nation’s “outlaws” while providing a harsh reminder that “crime does not pay.”  The physical reminder of “general deterrence” as a social policy is hard to miss.  Yet it is also a physical reminder of the failure of deterrence, given the high recidivism rates.


[29]  Travis, J.  “Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion.”  In Mauer and Chesney-Lind, Invisible Punishment, pp. 15-16.


[30] Ibid, p. 17.


[31] Ibid, pp. 18-19.


[32]  Ibid, p. 22.


[33] Harvard Law Review (1989). “The Disenfranchisement of Ex-Felons: Citizenship, Criminality, and the Purity of the Ballot Box.” The Harvard Law Review Association.


[34]  Ibid.


[35]  Petersilia, J. (2003). When Prisoners Come Home.  New York: Oxford University Press.



[36] Fellner, J. (1996). “Stark Racial Disparities Found in Georgia Drug Law enforcement,” Overcrowded Times 7, 5 (October); Fellner, J. and M. Mauer (1998).  “Nearly 4 Million Americans Denied Vote Because of Felony Convictions.”  Overcrowded Times 9, 5 (October).


[37] “About Felon Re-enfranchisement.” Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action. See also the “Felon Disenfranchisement Project”:


[38] Wheelock, D. (2005). “Collateral Consequences and Racial Inequality: Felon Status Restrictions as a System of Disadvantage.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 21: 82-90.


[39]  Palast, G. (2000). The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. New York: Penguin Books.


[40] Uggen, C. and J. Manza (2002). “Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States.” American Sociological Review 67: 777-803.


[41] Ibid, p. 767.


[42] Ibid, pp. 792-793.


[43] Ibid, p. 796.  See also the following: Feeley, M. M. and J. Simon (1992). “The New Penology: Notes on the Emerging Strategy of Corrections and its Implications.” Criminology 30: 449-74; Wacquant, L. (2001). “Deadly Symbiosis: when Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh.”  Punishment and Society 3: 95-134; Western, B. and K. Beckett (1999). “How unregulated is the U.S. labor market? The penal system as a labor market.”  American Journal of Sociology 104:1030-1060.


[44] Mauer, M. and T. Kansal (2005). Barred for Life: Voting Rights Restoration in Permanent Disenfranchisement States. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.


[45] Rose, D. and T. Clear (1998).  “Incarceration, Social Capital, and Crime: Implications for Social Disorganization Theory.”  Criminology 36 (3): 441-479.


[46]  Clear, T. (2002).  “Addition by Subtraction.”  In Mauer and Chesney-Lind, Invisible Punishment.


[47] Clear, T. and D. R. Rose (1999).  When Neighbors Go to Jail: Impact on Attitudes about Formal and Informal Social Control. Washington, DC:  National Institute of Justice.


[48] Shaw, C. and H. McKay (1972).  Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (originally published 1942).


[49]  Wilson discusses at length the decline in the “marriage market” for black women largely as a result of severe unemployment within the inner cities. Wilson, W. J. (1987).  The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[50] Petersilia, When Prisoners Come Home. 


[51] Human Rights Watch (2004). “No Second Chance. People with Criminal Records Denied Access to Public Housing.” November.


[52] Metraux, S. and D. P. Culhane (2004).  “Homeless Shelter Use and Reincarceration Following Prison Release.”  Criminology and Public Policy 3:139-160, March.  It appears that the growth in homelessness has paralleled the growth in prison populations.  See Burt, M. R., L. Y. Aron, E. Lee, and J. Valente (2001). Helping America’s Homeless: Emergency Shelter or Affordable Housing.  Washington, DC: Urban Institute; Gowan, T. (2003). “The Nexus: Homelessness and Incarceration in Two American Cities.”  Ethnography 3:500-534.


[53]  Human Rights Watch, “No Second Chance.”


[54] Travis, J. (2002).  “Invisible Punishment: An Instrument of Social Exclusion.”  In Mauer and Chesney-Lind, Invisible Punishment.


[55] Ibid, p. 23.


[56] Rubenstein, G. and D.  Mukamal (2002). “Welfare and Housing- Denial of Benefits to Drug Offenders.” In Mauer and Chesney-Lind, Invisible Punishment.


[57] Bureau of Justice Assistance (1997). “Denial of Federal Benefits Program and Clearinghouse.” November.


[58] The impact has been negative to say the least.  An estimated 189,065 college students have been denied student loans because of drug convictions, mostly for possession.  Students convicted for violent crimes do not face this problem.  Leinwand, D. (2006). “Drug convictions cost students their financial aid,” USA Today, April 17; D. Saunders (2005). “Drug-war follies,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 10.

© Randall G. Shelden, 2007.  This may not be reproduced without the express written consent of the author.