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Causes of Crime

The Washington Post finds it surprising that crime rates in New York City have dropped while the prison population has declined.

It is one of the least-told stories in American crime-fighting. New
York, the safest big city in the nation, achieved its now-legendary
70-percent drop in homicides even as it locked up fewer and fewer of
its citizens during the past decade. The number of prisoners in the
city has dropped from 21,449 in 1993 to 14,129 this past week. That
runs counter to the national trend, in which prison admissions have
jumped 72 percent during that time.

"If you want to drive down crime, the experience of New York shows
that it’s ridiculous to spend your first dollar building more prison
cells," said Michael Jacobson, who served as New York’s correction
commissioner for former mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and now is
president of the Vera Institute of Justice, which studies
crime-fighting trends worldwide.

"I can’t tell you exactly why
violent crime in New York declined by twice the national rate," he
said. "But I can tell you this: It wasn’t because we locked up more

It doesn’t seem obvious to either Jacobson or the author of the article, Michael Powell, that crime might be down for reasons unrelated to incarceration, say a change in the demographics of New York and that both crime and incarceration are down because of this third factor. Correlation isn’t causation.

The article goes on to look at other states:

Perhaps as intriguing is the experience in states where officials spent
billions of dollars to build prisons. From 1992 to 2002, Idaho’s prison
population grew by 174 percent. the largest percentage increase in the
nation. Yet violent crime in that state rose by 14 percent. In West
Virginia, the prison population increased by 171 percent, and violent
crime rose 10 percent. In Texas, the prison population jumped by 168
percent, and crime dropped by 11 percent.

I guess I don’t find it so intriguing.

In Idaho, something changed—say an increase in the proportion of young
men relative to the population as a whole—and this in turn increased
crime and—surprise!—led to an increase in the number of people in jail.
And sometime when your criminal population increases, you have to build more prisons. Maybe that’s why prison spending is up rather than because of some theory that by building more prisons you’d deter crime. Without more information, these numbers have no meaning.

What am I missing here? Ah, here it is:

"Crime is down and people
realize, sure, we can lock up more people, but that’s why your kid’s
pre-K class has 35 kids — all the money is going to prisons," Jacobson
says. "There’s a sense of urgency that for the first time in two
decades, we can talk about whether it makes sense to lock up even more

According to this logic, we should let some criminals go free rather
than tie up valuable money taking care of them in prisons or building
new ones. Use that money for schools and the crime rate won’t change. In fact, it will go down, because better reading pre-K reading programs mean fewer criminals!

I don’t know what’s sadder. The claim that we’re spending less on
education (we’re not), the idea that if we spent more money on
education, we’d get more education (not true given the incentives of
the public school system) or the implication that punishment doesn’t
deter crime (it does). 

(HT: James Taranto’s Best of the Web at the WSJ)