Crime Rate Fluctuation

Many sociologist and criminal theorist have attempted to explain fluctuation in the crime rates at both a state and national level through out America. Perhaps one of the most widely scrutinized and debated relationships is that between the crime rate and incarceration levels. The U.S Department of justice has stated that “tough sentencing means

less crime”, however, proponents say that due to the abundance of ambiguous statistical analysis’s this claim should not be made because of the apparent complex relationship between crime and incarceration. A common misconception among the general public is that locking up ‘bad guys’ is the most effective way of making communities more safe and secure from crime. This is, however, anything but an accepted fact among professionals within the criminal field.

One of the most apparent trends among the criminal justice system is the extreme increase of prison and jail populations within the last 40 years. According to The Sentencing Project’s article titled Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship, prison and jail populations have increased by more than 500% between the periods of 1970 and 2000. This is quite a dramatic change, yet there has not been a change equally significant within the national crime rates. The nation as a whole has experienced a 40-year low in crime, however, the crime rates are only at the level in which they were during a time when the incarcerated population was just a fraction of the total today.

Analysts can currently attribute only about 25% of the decline in violent crime to increased incarceration. Presented in the Sentencing Project’s report, economist Steven Levitt identifies four other primary factors that can be attributed to the decline in crime during the 1990’s. Levitt argues that one such factor was the growing economy which produced more jobs and opportunities for lower-wage workers and characterizes this to a nearly 30% decline in crime. This appears to make a great amount of sense. If lower level social economic classes are presented with a greater chance for success this could be enough to deter them from committing crime. Many people are pushed into a life of crime by unfortunate circumstances that lead them to believe there is no other choice. If a larger amount of opportunities are offered such as jobs, these may give enough incentives and reasons to lead people away from criminal activities.

Strategic policing is another factor that Levitt suggests contributes to a decrease in crime rates. Levitt states that the adoption of various forms of community level policing are more effective strategies that make better use of police forces. Community policing is a strategy that promotes police to work closely with community residents emphasizing crime prevention, as opposed to law enforcement. This form of policing not only builds stronger relationships with communities but also reduces the fear of crime within them. (Walker and Katz 15)

The Sentencing Project’s report lists several reasons for the limited impact that incarceration has on crime rates. Diminishing returns in crime control are possibly one of the biggest reasons for incarceration’s lack of effect on crime rates. As prison systems expand there is a higher increase of lower-rate offenders particularly related to drug offences. The expanded incarceration of these lower-rate and lower-level offenders has a negative effect on the cost-to-benefit ratios. These lower-level offenders cost an equal amount of resources as the higher-level offenders, yet cause no decline in crime rates projected by The Uniform Crime Reports.

Another important reason for the limited effect that incarceration has on crimes rates is ascribed to the negative impacts on family and community levels. Incarcerating members of society in facilities located long distances from their community has a damaging effect. This type of imprisonment is said to weaken family and community bonds, and contribute to an increase in recidivism and future criminality. These family and community bonds are often frayed or broken by long distance imprisonment have a destabilizing effect, making it more difficult for the reintegration of former convicts into society.

A final reason for the limited impact that incarceration has on crime rates has to do with the comparison to other interventions as an alternative solution. The Sentencing Project’s report suggests that drug treatment, interventions with at-risks families, and school completion programs are more cost effective than expanded incarceration as crime control measures. Placing more money into programs such as these will have a strong influence on crime rates by addressing social issues rather than just locking them away. Incarceration alone has no little to any rehabilitative value and should be reserved for more serious offenders. People with drug addictions and psychological problems should be treated in a way that has more of a focus on medical needs rather than punishment by isolation.

There is no denying that incarceration has an impact on decreasing crime rates, however, it is not the ultimate solution. More focus should be place on community level needs such as education and employment. Higher education costs have continued to rise making it more difficult for families in lower social economic brackets to consider college as an option. The strongest tool for lowering crime is education. People with higher education are less likely to resort to criminal behavior and more likely to succeed in life. The government needs to place more emphasis on programs designed to make college more affordable and accessible to a wider variety of people.

Discrimination against ex-convicts is a practice that may also contribute to an increase in recidivism and crime rates. Anyone with a federal charge is essentially given a scarlet letter, making it nearly impossible for them to seek employment or higher education. People released from prisons should be given an equal opportunity rather than branding them as lost causes. It is these types of practices that give ex-cons a feeling of hopelessness and exile from their government and society that ultimately cause them to resort back to crime.

If the criminal justice system is truly committed to decreasing the crime rate they should consider revising current laws pertaining to substance abuse. Drug addicts belong in hospitals not prisons. The practice of mandatory minimum sentencing on drug offenders should be abolished and the money spent on the incarceration of them should be diverted to programs designed to treat and reintegrate drug offenders into society.

The solution to decreasing crime rates will be a combination of various practices such as incarceration, raising employment opportunity and education. There is no one solution to the problem of crime and many which have yet to be explored. Prison over population is becoming a serious problem that wastes away precious resources. The solution is not to simply build more facilities. In order to create a safer and more secure society there needs to be more research and exploration into solutions rather than just locking criminals up and throwing away the key.


Walker, Samuel, and Charles M. Katz. The Police in America An Introduction. 5th. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

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