Crime vs. punishment

Today, Reynolds and Krisberg discuss crime rates and incarceration. Yesterday, they debated prison overcrowding. Later this week, they'll focus on mandatory sentencing laws, early release and other issues.

Complex factors

Serious crime rates declined significantly in California from 1995 to 1999 and have since leveled off at that lower level. Prison populations in California steadily grew from 1980 to the present, covering periods such as the early 1980s, when crime rates were dropping, and the early 1990s, when they were rapidly increasing. While it might seem obvious that putting more bad people in prison will reduce crime, the evidence for this is much more ambiguous. Many factors influence crime rates, such as demographics, immigration patterns, unemployment rates, epidemics of illegal drugs and guns, housing density and policing strategies, among other variables. A recent study suggested that fewer children exposed to lead in the environment could lead to lower crime rates.

During the period when California's crime rate was going down, there was a general national trend toward lower crime rates in almost every state. Canada experienced a decline in crime similar to the one in the U.S., but actually reduced its prison population. Many jurisdictions in the United States did not grow their prison populations as fast as the Golden State. New York City led the nation in its crime drop in the 1990s, but during this period there were fewer people from the Big Apple sent to city or state prisons. Here in California, San Diego experienced major crime declines but reduced its rate of sending people to state prisons, and San Francisco also recorded impressive reductions in crime, even though its district attorney utilized the "three strikes" law infrequently. On the other hand, Orange County did use "three strikes" quite a bit but did not see the crime reductions witnessed in San Francisco and San Diego — go figure.

Juvenile crime rates have also trended much lower since 1995, but the state youth prison population is less than one-quarter of what it was 10 years ago. By contrast, the state of Texas doubled its number of incarcerated juveniles during the 1990s and has a lock-up rate much higher than California's, but its youth crime rate was about the same as ours.

We all want dangerous offenders off the street, and for as long as we can keep them there. But California also fills its prisons with property offenders, addicts and people who don't commit new crimes but violate the rules of probation and parole supervision. For example, there are more than 11,000 women in state prisons. Most of them have not committed violent crimes and have low risks of future criminality. Moreover, each year, more than 125,000 prisoners are released back to our communities despite some of the nation's sternest sentencing laws. Most of these parolees will be rearrested in 24 months after having received minimal or no rehabilitation programs while in custody. To reduce crime, our prisons need to attempt to make some of these prisoners better by helping them with the basic life skills that they need to survive lawfully. We also need effective systems of reentry that support the transition of prisoners back home. Released inmates need safe places to live, literacy, jobs, mentors and assistance with addiction and mental health challenges. Without these, failure is predictable.

Dr. Barry Krisberg is the president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a criminal justice research institute based in Oakland, Calif. This fall, he will be teaching a class at the Boalt Hall School of Law on prisoner reentry.

Understand the link

The last two decades are best evaluated by looking at the 10 years prior to 1994 and the 10 years after 1994, the year Californians became fed up with crime and passed "Three Strikes and You're Out" into law.

During the 10 years prior to 1994, crime increased nearly every year, and California's crime rate was ranked third-highest in the nation.

Our inmate population increased more than 400%, and California built 19 new prisons.

The good news was that in only five years after the passage of "three strikes," California crime rates dropped in all categories and in record amounts that averaged approximately 40% in every category. California's crime rate dropped from third highest to 27th. California's reduction in crime was the fastest and greatest recorded in any state except New York. Our prison population grew only 26% , and we built only two new prisons.

The great failure in the liberal learning curve was proved beyond question during this 20- year period of time. The liberal position on crime was simple: Tough laws just lock up more people for more time and at greater costs to the state — and they have little or no effect on crime rates.

After the passage of "three strikes," California saw dramatic drops in crime and began to understand that less crime meant fewer arrests, prosecutions, victims and fewer people going to prison. Our prison population actually held steady at approximately 160,000 inmates for five years. This was a total shock to the liberal projections that California would need to build 20 new prisons to handle 250,000 new criminals.

It's now nearly 15 years since the passage of "three strikes," and our state's total population increase has put more strain on our roads, schools and prisons.

One other factor is also bringing more criminals into the system. Some county district attorneys have reduced their enforcement of "three strikes." They, in turn, have seen their crime rates go up. San Francisco, the most lax in prosecution of its criminals, enjoys the highest crime rate in the state, with Los Angeles coming in a close second.

We don't seem to understand that weak enforcement of our crime laws provides more incentive and opportunity for a career in crime.

Crime and prison populations in the two-decade period mentioned previously are compiled (see our Tenth Anniversary Report) from California's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation and crime rates from California's Department of Justice and are available at our website

Mike Reynolds is the father of Kimber Reynolds, who was murdered 1992 at the age of 18. He is also the father of "Three Strikes and You're Out" and "10-20-Life (Use A Gun and You're Done)," which are said to be among America's toughest crime laws.

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