Friday, February 17, 2012

Prison is not the answer

Crime frays the social fabric. People feel unsafe, become less trustful of others, and increase their isolation. Contrary to popular rhetoric and beliefs, putting more people in prison is not the answer. However, good policing is one answer.

Between 1990 and 2011, the homicide rate in New York City dropped 80%. Other major crimes (robbery, burglary, auto theft) decreased even more. New York’s crime rate has fallen more rapidly and longer than the crime rate in other major U.S. cities. Concurrently, New York’s jail and prison population decreased by 28% as the rest of the nation’s jail and prison population increased by 65%.

What happened?

New York obtained substantially better results by adopting policies that went against the conventional wisdom, i.e., putting people in prison will diminish crime rates. Instead of putting more people in prison, New York hired more police and changed its policing strategy. Changes included assigning more police to high crime areas, night duty, and shutting down open-air drug markets. (Franklin Zimring, “How to Stop Urban Crime without Jail Time,” Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2012)

Prisons are an ineffective means of crime control (Ethical Musings Musing about prison).

Furthermore, paying police not only costs less than incarceration but also creates good jobs, reduces crime, and causes criminals to engage in activities that are more socially productive and beneficial than crime.

Municipalities will do well to emulate New York’s example and improve policing rather than imprison more people.

1 comment:

George Clifford said...

A reader sent me this comment:

This "Ethical Musings" is a little dated but I wanted to reply because you are on target for "prison is not the answer". We as a society are fearful of the unknown and for the most part we do not unstand what causes people to commit a crime. Having more police on the street and at different time of day is a good start BUT how about yourth leaders leading youth in high crime probability areas organizing team sports, educational field trips along with topics that the youth would enjoy learning. We go along our "merry" way and "lock'em up". As tax payers we spent a lot of money building prisons which only makes criminals more harden and more criminal minded due to the anger build up. A prison is a cage and when we lock human beings in cages we dehumanize them, the statictis for prisoners re-entering prison prove this to be true. What do we do as a society to change the attitude?

To which I replied:
Thanks for your response. One major step toward changing the attitude, I think, is to get people into prisons, interacting with prisoners. This humanizes the prisoner, with salutary effects on both the prisoner and the visitors. I’m sure there other things we can do as well.