Monday, November 08, 2004

The Times buries the lede on "the rising prison population".

Following the Justice Department's annual release of prison statistics, Fox Butterfield of the NY Times today writes everybody's standard story on "the paradox of a falling crime rate but a rising prison population", entitled Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates.

Of course, it's oblivious to any even theoretical possibility that putting more criminals in prison might reduce the number of crimes they commit outside of it and so resolve the "paradox"-- that one might expect a drop in crime because of an increase in inmates. But let's skip that for now.

Way down at the end he gives one perfunctory sentence, "New York had a 2.8 percent decrease in new inmates, reflecting the continued sharp fall in crime in New York City", and moves on.

But wait ... it's not just "new" inmates. As a guy writing for a NYC paper, who is so concerned about the prison population, Fox of all people might have more interest in this: NYC is actually selling off excess prison space.

NY prison populations have been falling for five years...

NYC (.pdf)
10/1999: 16,364
2/2004: 13, 655 -16.6%

1999: 71,898
2004: 65,125 -9.4%

And the fall is continuing. Butterfield's report somehow doesn't catch the flavor of this.

Yes, of course this is because of "the continued sharp fall in crime in New York City", as he wrote -- but how'd that happen? Spontaneously, all by itself?

It's an entirely relevant question, because whatever happened in New York City is causing a continuing decline in the prison population.

Could it be that cracking down on crime like NYC did, first and harder and more efficiently than anyone else, deters crime, which fills the prisons at first but results in less crime in the future ... and thus results in fewer criminals in the future ... and thus in a smaller prison population in the future?

And that in NYC the future is now, because it started down this road well before anyone else and with the most effort?

Last 15 years...
NYC crime: about - 66%
US crime: about -15% (much accounted for by the drop in NYC)
[NYPD, click "crime statistics"]

With crime down 66% you're not going to have a smaller prison population? Hey, there's an original story for the Times: "To reduce prison population, reduce crime, New York shows."

As to reducing crime, New York also shows that there is much more to it than just sending a lot of people to jail. (prior post on this) But with New York's imprisonment rate declining more slowly than its crime rate, its incarceration rate per crime is up -- making it look like the deterrent effect of jail time plays its role.

Now, the idea of a causal sequence over time reducing the prison population may be a lot to digest for a guy who apparently won't even entertain the possibility that taking criminals off the street might reduce the crime rate currently.

But being that he's writing in a NYC newspaper, the very city where this is all happening, shouldn't it be worth a mention?

And maybe he could've gotten a quote from a real working NYC law enforcement official on the subject too, to balance the one he went all the way to Carneigie Mellon to get from the academic who had this interesting view...

Professor Blumstein said [tough sentencing] "in many ways is self-defeating." The criminal justice system is built on deterrence, with being sent to prison supposedly a stigma, he said. "But it's tough to convey a sense of stigma when so many of your friends and neighbors are similarly stigmatized."
Hello? Tough sentencing deters crime via "a sense of stigma"?

I might have thought that tough sentencing deters crime via people wanting to avoid spending years in jail!

How about this for a future NY Times story lede?...

If you want to have fewer people wasting their lives in prison tomorrow, the experience of the nation's largest city shows you should be really tough on crime today -- is the rest of the nation being tough enough?
I thought so. ;-)