America’s epidemic of mass incarceration is a moral outrage and a tremendous waste not only of taxpayer money but also of social potential and human capital. Now, however, as the results begin to file in from the first states that have wisely sought to reduce their prison populations, it has become clear that ending mass incarceration has an additional benefit: reducing crime. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law examined changes in incarceration and crime rates in four states – New York, New Jersey, South Carolina, and California – that have been at the forefront of the movement to end mass incarceration, and found a universal correlation between a reduced prison population and lower crime rates.
In New Jersey, the last decade has seen a 26% reduction of the state’s prison population and a concurrent decline in crime rates of more than 30%. Across the river in New York, the prison population has been cut by 28% since 1999 while violent crime has fallen 31% and property crime has fallen 28%. Just since 2011, when New York enacted far-reaching sentencing reform that eliminated mandatory minimums, decreased felony quotas, and increased judicial discretion, the state has seen its crime rate drop by an astonishing 11% as the prison population declined by a further 5%.
In California, where a budget crisis and prison overcrowding have belatedly spurred the state to the forefront of prison reform, the report found that since 2006 the prison population has been cut by 23% as violent crime declined by 21% and property crime by 13%. Finally, in South Carolina, the same pattern has become clear since the state eliminated mandatory minimums and expanded parole eligibility in 2010: violent crime has plummeted 28% and property crime has fallen 9% even as incarceration has decreased by 14%.
The drug war has been an undeniable failure that has left a terrible toll of destroyed lives and devastated communities in its aftermath. It’s been a long time coming, but politicians do seem to be coming to the realization that our system of mass incarceration needs serious reform – even if many Republicans continue to defend the clearly failed policies of the past at the behest of the private prison lobbyists who line their coffers. Despite the overwhelming evidence that mass incarceration does more harm than good and only leads to recidivism and a culture of violence and lawlessness in targeted communities, Republicans have repeatedly used scare tactics to impede prison reform. They’ve warned of the danger of releasing criminals and “monsters” back into the community, no matter that the system makes such incarceration nearly unavoidable.
Now, however, even that last desperate argument has been blown to shreds by the actual evidence that is now coming back from the states that have been sensible enough to move forward with prison reform. Crime is falling nationwide (although you wouldn’t know it from the skyrocketing prison populations in many states) but the decline has in fact been more pronounced in those states that have reduced their prison populations. If we can restore the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to America’s degraded underclass that has been holed up in our bloated prison system while simultaneously reducing crime rates for everyone – which the evidence emphatically demonstrates we can – why in the world wouldn’t we?
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.