Would Locking Up Congressmen Longer Reduce Crime?
Under the theory that longer sentences deters crime, longer sentences for legislators convicted of crimes should serve as a deterrent and reduce Congressional crime rates. Plus, longer prison sentences are believed to also reduce crime through incapacitation, that is, by keeping Congressmen off the street (K Street, that is) where they could again involve themselves in criminal enterprises.
But this theory of reducing crime rates by “getting tough on crime” turns out to have problems. Where criminologists can test the consequences of long prison sentences, many find crime rate increase, rather than drop.
In a July 22, 2015 Quartz post, “In America, mass incarceration has caused more crime than it’s prevented,” Allison Schrager reports on research testing the “more prison time; less crime” theory:
A new paper from University of Michigan economics professor Michael Mueller-Smith measures how much incapacitation reduced crime. He looked at court records from Harris County, Texas from 1980 to 2009. Mueller-Smith observed that in Harris County people charged with similar crimes received totally different sentences depending on the judge to whom they were randomly assigned. Mueller-Smith then tracked what happened to these prisoners. He estimated that each year in prison increases the odds that a prisoner would reoffend by 5.6% a quarter. Even people who went to prison for lesser crimes wound up committing more serious offenses subsequently, the more time they spent in prison. His conclusion: Any benefit from taking criminals out of the general population is more than off-set by the increase in crime from turning small offenders into career criminals.
Much research supports the claim that incarceration either doesn’t reduce crime or actually increases it. On the other side, however, is research claiming incarceration does reduce crime (as long as assaults within prisons are not counted). The University of Chicago Crime Lab page explains:
The best study on this question to date is by Crime Lab member Steve Levitt, and suggests increased imprisonment does seem to reduce crime. Levitt tries to overcome confounding from the possibility that higher crime might cause higher incarceration, and that both crime and prison might be determined by the same underlying, hard-to-measure social factors, by exploiting a “natural experiment” generated by the release of prisoners in some states and not others due to prison overcrowding litigation. It is plausible that overcrowding lawsuits affect crime in states only through their impact on the size of the state’s prison population. Levitt finds that crime subsequently increases in states where overcrowding lawsuits are decided in favor of the plaintiffs relative to states where such lawsuits do not so decided.
When contemplating a crime, the likelihood of getting caught, convicted, and sent to prison, and for how long, does influence choices and behavior. U.S. policy to “get tough on crime” with longer sentences was intended in part to deter criminal acts. But it turns out that increasing the probability of getting caught has a much higher impact on crime rates. Again from the Allison Schrager Quartz post:
The simplest way to increase the perceived probability [of getting caught] is to put more police on the street. Florida State’s Jonathan Klick and George Mason economist Alex Tabarrok estimate that raising terror alert levels increased police presence by 50%. It is not clear if that meant less terrorism, but more police decreased auto-theft by 43% and burglary by 15%.
More police reduce crime, while longer sentences don’t, because of how criminals perceive risk. Most people commit crime thinking they won’t get caught. Seeing more police changes this and increases the perceived cost of committing crime.
Schrager gives more supporting experience:
A notorious example of this is the dramatic crime drop that occurred in New York City in the 1990s. There are many reasons crime fell, including a stronger economy that offered better, legal alternatives to crime. But a major factor was that the New York police force grew by 35%. There is little evidence that arresting people for misdemeanors prevented them from committing more serious crimes later, which was the philosophy at the time. But crime did fall because arrests increased for all kinds of crime.
Back to our initial question, Mark Twain argues:
“It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”
― Mark Twain
If Twain is correct in his view, first-hand experience may offer Congressmen insights into criminal justice reform.
Mike Fitzpatrick, writing in a July 31, 2015 Philly.com article, advocates the SAFE Justice Act (H.R. 2944):
By applying data-driven criminal justice reform lessons learned at the state level to action at the federal level, this legislation addresses head-on the expanding costs to taxpayers and often disproportionate application of justice in our current system.
The SAFE Justice Act comprises dozens of reforms that are rooted in the growing body of research on reducing recidivism, containing costs, and truly addressing crime. Included are efforts to:
Curtail overcriminalization by protecting against wrongful convictions; create procedures to simplify charging and safely reduce pretrial detention; and eliminate federal criminal penalties for simple drug possession in state jurisdictions.
Here is a Vox article on the SAFE Justice Act.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner weighs in on the topic, noting successful reforms at the state level, in this July 30, 2015 Washington Examiner article, “Now is the time for criminal justice reform“:
For example, in 2007, Texas adopted prison reform policies. Its crime rate fell by 18 percent, while its imprisonment rate dropped by 10 percent. Similarly, in Wisconsin, after reforms were enacted, the state’s crime rate fell 19 percent and the imprisonment rate fell seven percent.
The states are proving that bipartisan criminal justice reform is not only possible, but that it is working to reduce crime, decrease incarceration and lower the taxpayer burden throughout the country, all while maintaining public safety. It’s time for Congress to follow suit.