For the first time in decades, the nation may be on the verge of a wide-open debate on criminal justice policy. Lawmakers in both parties have introduced bills on sentencing reform. The Smarter Sentencing Act would decrease corrections costs by reducing mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses. The Corrections Act would allow some prisoners to earn early release and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.
Unfortunately, perhaps no area of public policy is more warped by misconceptions than criminal justice. National and local policy is often made on the basis of anecdotes and rarely are hard data used to inform decision-making. Moreover, policies set decades ago, though outdated, are still in effect today.
Criminal justice reform should prioritize protecting public safety while reducing our world-high incarcerated population. Before the nation dives into a new debate about how to accomplish these goals, there are four key misconceptions that should be corrected.
1. Crime rates are not rising. Sensational news stories promote the impression that crime is on the rise. Mass shootings, for example, skew public perception of crime and danger. A 2011 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of Americans think crime is on the rise. They are wrong. Crime has been declining since the early 1990s. Violent crime has fallen by almost 50 percent since its peak in 1991. Last month, New York City saw its longest stretch without a single homicide since the early 1990s.
2. Penalties do not deter potential offenders. Deterrence philosophy — the idea that someone will choose not to commit a crime because of a specific penalty — is one justification often touted in support of harsh sentences, including three-strikes laws and the death penalty. However, all such punitive policies have proved unlikely to deter, because potential offenders typically underestimate the risks of getting caught and the possible punishments.
3. Carrying concealed weapons does not prevent crime. Right-to-carry legislation legalizing the concealed possession of firearms has been posited as a way to improve public safety by increasing deterrence. If potential criminals do not know whether potential victims are armed, they are theoretically less likely to act. Researchers have found, however, that there is no evidence that more guns lead to less crime. In fact, research indicates that making it easier to carry firearms increases firearm homicide rates, causing 0.9 percent more firearm homicides for every percentage point increase in gun ownership. Deterrence is a dangerous philosophy upon which to rely.
4. The dramatic drop in crime nationally does not prove increased incarceration works to reduce crime. The crime drop does not demonstrate the success of increased incarceration and harsh sentencing regimes. A new Brennan Center report found that mass incarceration played a limited role in the crime decline. Increased incarceration accounted for about 6 percent of the decline in property crime in the 1990s and had almost no effect since 2000.
In fact, more incarceration can increase crime. When defendants are sentenced to prison instead of pro-rehabilitation alternatives or longer instead of shorter terms or to higher-security prisons, prison has detrimental effects. For example, incarceration strains relationships with families and communities and diminishes economic prospects, which in turn increases the likelihood of recidivism.
Taxpayers and policymakers are right to insist that every dollar spent on corrections must help keep the public safe. Policy decisions must be rooted in the data available. A growing body of evidence indicates that numerous economic and environmental factors, including rising incomes, an aging population and decreased alcohol consumption, drove the fall in crime over the past two decades. Working to improve the general welfare of communities, then, can help reduce crime more effectively than policies that drive mass incarceration, without the immense fiscal, economic and social costs.
So can smart policing. CompStat, a data-driven police management technique, played a role in reducing crime in the cities in which it was introduced. Increased numbers of police officers on the street also played a small role. Community policing and alternatives to incarceration such as substance abuse and mental health programs can protect public safety at a small fraction of the cost of incarcerating an offender — which averages about $30,000 a year.
With growing bipartisan support for reform, the country has the potential to move out of an outdated mindset to advance a 21st century criminal justice policy that reduces crime without reliance on excessively harsh methods.