Thursday, July 18, 2013

Global reduction in crime: The Economist magazine

The cover story in the latest issue of The Economist magazine reports on the global trend of dramatically reduced crime in the developed world.

Aging populations is one factor. Significantly improved policing, relying upon the analysis of data, and the proliferation of security cameras and devices have dramatically increased the likelihood that offenders will be caught. The best tool for deterring crime is to create the belief among potential offenders that they are likely to be caught quickly. A lot of the theoretical and practical application of this work has been explored by David Kennedy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in his books, Deterrence and Crime Prevention, and Don't Shoot, and Mark A.R. Kleiman, a very prominent scholar of drug policy, in his book, When Brute Force Fails.

What is least important in the decrease in crime are the increases in prison population, especially those increases due to massive long sentences adopted in the 1980s by the U.S. Congress and many state legislatures.

In the case of Congress, these sentences -- often mandatory minimums -- were enacted in 1986 after it created the U.S. Sentencing Commission, but before the Commission could develop the politics-free sentences that was a primary reason for the commission's creation. Congress had no evidence that long sentences might be effective -- they filled the need for sounding tough in partisan political fights over crime which was a high stakes conflict between Republicans and Democrats in key election years.

Now, at last there is bipartisan legislation that has a chance to help judges escape the mandatory minimums, the Justice Safety Valve Act, S. 619, introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-TN) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

There are other hopeful developments elsewhere, too. In the House of Representatives, a bipartisan task force of the Judiciary Committee is now exploring the problems of over-criminalization and over-punishment. And in a recent letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Justice Department finally concedes that sentencing reform is warranted.

Of course many states started pulling back from the orgy of imprisonment. In New York, the prison population has been cut by one-quarter since 1990 and crime has fallen to the levels of the 1950s and 1960s!

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