In his column in the September 19, 1926 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, H.L. Mencken wrote an article entitled, “Notes on Journalism.” There he complained about “tabloid newspapers” that were geared toward uneducated readers, including those Mencken described as “near-illiterates.” He opined that when a tabloid became successful the owner often tried to make it more respectable and “reach out for customers of a higher sophistication.” Mencken said that was a mistake and, near the end of column, summed up why by writing the words that were later turned into the shorter famous “quote” about underestimating the intelligence of the American public. His actual words were:
“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”
Despite numerous reports that America is senselessly incarcerating too many people (on a per capita basis, more than even Russia), both Sen. Tom Cotton and Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clark talk about how America is underincarcerating people. Nick Gass, “Sen. Tom Cotton: U.S. has ‘under-incarceration problem’” Politico (May 19, 2016), http://www.politico.com/story/2016/05/tom-cotton-under-incarceration-223371 and Maurice Chammah “American Sheriff David Clarke, the Trump-loving, pro-mass-incarceration, Fox News favorite, is challenging criminal-justice reform—and stereotypes” The Atlantic (May 5, 2016), http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/05/american-sheriff/481131/. There message is clear: those whimpy liberals are releasing criminals from prison who are now coming to get you! OOOOO…scary thought!
Great headlines but is it true that the releasing from custody a certain population the public is less safe and crime rates go up? Short answer? NO!
Look at these numbers:
- New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing their prison populations by 26% between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10%.
- California downsized its prison population by 23% between 2006 and 2012. During this period, the nationwide state prison population decreased by just 1%.
- During their periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these three states than they did nationwide. Between 1999- 2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31% and 30%, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26%. Between 2006- 2012, California’s violent crime rate drop of 21% exceeded the national decline of 19%.
- Property crime rates also decreased in New York and New Jersey more than they did nationwide, while California’s reduction was slightly lower than the national average. Between 1999-2012, New York’s property crime rate fell by 29% and New Jersey’s by 31%, compared to the national decline of 24%. Between 2006-2012, California’s property crime drop of 13% was slightly lower than the national reduction of 15%. The Sentencing Project, “Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States” http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Fewer-Prisoners-Less-Crime-A-Tale-of-Three-States.pdf
Specifically, a study examined crime in California, is entitled ““Is Downsizing Prisons Dangerous? The Effect of California’s Realignment Act on Public Safety.” by criminology professors Jody Sundt, Emily J. Salisbury and Mark G. Harmon. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1745-9133.12199/abstract
The study found that when considering the patterns of crime nationally and in California between 2010 and 2014, there was little or no deviation in the crime rate after the mass prisoner release. Further, “[a]n astounding 17 percent reduction in the size of the California prison population,” Sundt’s study concluded, “had no effect on aggregate rates of violent or property crime.” The study said that California’s initial, full-throated embrace of incarceration as a means to fight crime, such as the notorious “Three Strikes” law, “may affect crime, but it does so at a high social, human and economic cost and is far less cost-effective than alternatives. Moreover, there is now evidence that prison populations can be safely reduced without harming the public.”