Note: This is the second in a series of three articles that counter comments made by Wisconsin sheriff David Clarke during a panel discussion on criminal justice reform at CPAC, where he suggested that reform efforts are built on “three lies.” The first can be found here, and the third part can be found here.
Truth #2: Criminal justice reform can reduce crime and preserve public safety.
Without explicitly stating as much, Sheriff Clarke appears to tie most, if not all, of the historic reductions in crime rates across the country over the last two or three decades to increased incarceration, mainly as part of tough mandatory sentencing imposed by Congress and state legislatures. This argument is commonplace, particularly for conservatives espousing an uncritical “tough on crime” philosophy.
The argument traditionally goes as such: should mandatory minimums be rolled back, the country would risk becoming embroiled in another crime wave. However, there is an entire body of scholarship, with plenty of empirical evidence, to suggest that such fears are overblown.
First, according to “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States,” a publication of the National Research Council, there is a “plausibility to the belief that putting many more convicted felons behind bars would reduce crime,” and indeed, other researchers have found at least some deterrent effect of doing so—assuming the sentences are targeted to violent or repeat offenders.
However, the authors go on to admit the “complexity” of drawing meaningful correlations between crime and incarceration rates, citing a lack of any clear trend in the data:
“Thus, the committee’s charge was to dig below the surface and review the research evidence on the impact of the specific drivers of the rise in U.S. incarceration rates on crime in the hope that this evidence would inform the larger policy discourse. In this regard, one of our most important conclusions is that the incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.” [Emphasis added.]
Others have drawn the same conclusion: namely, that a direct correlation between increasing prison sentences employed as a deterrent and a reduction in crime is tenuous.
Secondly, what of the evidence? Again, if the data is indicative of anything, it’s that the relationship between crime and incarceration rates is murky, although not without important lessons to be learned.
Between 2009 and 2014, there were more states (30) who achieved reductions in both crime and incarceration rates than those who lowered their crime rates while increasing incarceration (17). In fact, the former saw even faster reductions in their crime rates (16% reduction over five years, compared to 13%). Several conservative “red” states who have reduced both rates—particularly Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, among others—have undergone significant criminal justice reform since 2005. Texas, which largely does not have mandatory sentences—reserving them solely for the most violent or repeat offenders—has safely reduced its incarceration rate for a decade, and short of experiencing an outbreak of lawlessness, has enjoyed its lowest level of crime in nearly 50 years.
It was disappointing to hear Sheriff Clarke take such a critical view of crime statistics, even going so far as to say that “figures lie, and liars figure.” Conservatives would be in error were they to deny their Burkean inheritance in favor of intransigence and appeals to fear on this issue. If the states have proven anything, it’s that criminal justice reform is safe, and reductions in both crime and incarceration rates can occur—and have occurred—simultaneously.