The dramatic rise of incarceration and the precipitous fall in crime have shaped the landscape of American criminal justice over the last two decades. Both have been unprecedented. Many believe that the explosion in incarceration created the crime drop. In fact, the enormous growth in imprisonment only had a limited impact. And, for the past thirteen years, it has passed the point of diminishing returns, making no effective difference. We now know that we can reduce our prison populations and simultaneously reduce crime.

This has profound implications for criminal justice policy: We lock up millions of people in an effort to fight crime. But this is not working.

The link between rising incarceration and falling crime seems logical. Draconian penalties and a startling expansion in prison capacity were advertised as measures that would bring down crime. That’s what happened, right?

Not so fast. There is wide agreement that we do not yet fully know what caused crime to drop. Theories abound, from an aging population to growing police forces to reducing lead in the air. A jumble of data and theories makes it hard to sort out this big, if happy, mystery. And it has been especially difficult to pin down the role of growing incarceration.

The Crime Decline

The drop in crime stands as one of the more fascinating and remarkable social phenomena of our time. For decades, crime soared. Cities were viewed as unlivable. Politicians competed to run the most lurid campaign ads and sponsor the most punitive laws. Racially tinged “wedge issues” marked American politics from Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign of 1968 to the “Willie Horton” ads credited with helping George H.W. Bush win the 1988 election.

But over the past 25 years, the tide of crime and violence seemed to simply recede. Crime is about half of what it was at its peak in 1991. Violent crime plummeted 51 percent. Property crime fell 43 percent. Homicides are down 54 percent. In 1985, there were 1,384 murders in New York City. Last year there were 333. The country is an undeniably safer place. Growing urban populations are one positive consequence.

incarceration n. 监禁;下狱;禁闭

precipitous  险峻的;急躁的

unprecedented 空前的;无前例的

imprisonment 监禁,关押

abound  富于;充满

jumble 混乱

unlivable 不适宜于居住的

lurid 可怕的,耸人听闻的

punitive 惩罚性的

recede 后退;减弱

Homicides 杀人


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