Evidence Undermines Claims of Prison Reform Opponents

One of the arguments that those opposed to criminal justice reform often claim is that violent crime is a concern, making it unwise to pass even the most basic of reforms to reduce recidivism. This is hypocritical on its face, simply because reducing recidivism by definition reduces crime rates by lowering the number of re-offenders. Nevertheless, opponents of criminal justice reform are ramping up their rhetoric on crime rates to oppose the FIRST STEP Act, H.R. 5682.

The focus on crime rates is a crucial messaging point for opponents of criminal justice reform. After all, polling shows Americans are concerned about crime. Of course, politicians routinely use fears about crime to get re-elected and the media uses it to their advantage to attract viewers and drive an anti-gun agenda.

One exceedingly misguided commentator even tweeted out a few days ago that “[w]e don’t have an incarceration problem, we have a violent crime problem.” The claim that the United States has “a violent crime problem” is specious, but it plays to people’s fears. Most people don’t realize, however, that the rate of violent crime in the United States has been in decline for more than 20 years.

The rate of violent crime peaked in 1991 at 758.1 reported crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. It began to decline in 1992 and continued a downward pace. By 2000, the violent crime rate was 506.5. Although the violent crime rate increased in 2005 and 2006, it began to fall again in 2008. In 2010, it was 404.5 and reached a low of 361.6 in 2014. As of 2016, the violent crime rate was 386.3 reported crimes per 100,000 inhabitants — cut nearly in half from 1991.

Violent Crime Per 100,000 Inhabitants: 1960-2016

Despite the slight uptick in violent crime over the past two years, the United States is seeing its lowest violent crime rate since the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although the Federal Bureau of Investigation won’t release the 2017 Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) until September, the preliminary report for the first six months of 2017 shows a slight decline in violent crime over the first six months of 2016.

The claim that violent crime is on the rise is a strange one for opponents of criminal justice reform to make, particularly from conservatives and especially at a time when the Second Amendment is under fire. The data actually back up conservatives that higher rates of gun ownership don’t lead to more gun-related crime.

Between 1993 and 2013, the gun homicide rate declined by 49 percent and the gun victimization rate dropped by 75 percent, according to Pew Research Center. More states have loosened their gun laws. The Supreme Court rightly determined the Second Amendment is an individual right in Heller in 2008 and incorporated it to the states in McDonald in 2010. Gun-related crime continued to decline. Still, those who want to fan the flames of fear are using shootings to their advantage to push for gun control, not unlike their counterparts who oppose criminal justice reform by making claims about violent crime that aren’t backed up by the data.

Similarly, between 2008 and 2016, 35 states saw declines in both crime rates and imprisonment rates. Many of these states implemented recidivism reduction reforms like those in the FIRST STEP Act. In fact, 21 states saw double-digit drops in both crime and imprisonment rates. Of course, states have learned how to address crime. More than 30 states, including Georgia and Texas, have passed and implemented reforms to reduce recidivism. Clearly, with crime rates declining in these states, they have found the sweet spot.

Some also argue against criminal justice reform because they believe drug dealers, particularly in light of the opioid crisis, should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. People who use such rhetoric clearly don’t understand the motives of those who use and deal drugs.

People who deal drugs tend to do so for certain reasons. One reason is because a user developed an addiction and he or she turns to dealing drugs to feed that addiction. A heroin habit can cost $150 per day or more, making it difficult for the user to pay for it. He or she may begin dealing or trafficking drugs to mitigate the cost.

Another reason is a lack of economic opportunity. Mismanagement by the state or local government or failing industries may be a cause of the absence of opportunity, which creates an environment in which drugs thrive.

A 2014 study from the National Research Council, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, explained these problems. “With fewer well-paying economic opportunities available, some young men in poor inner-city neighborhoods turned to drug dealing and other criminal activities as sources of income,” the report noted. “Ethnographers have documented the proliferation of drug dealing and violence in high-unemployment urban neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Another problem the report explained is that a criminal record may be a barrier to employment, making it difficult for someone who may have made a mistake to find a job.

“Outside of the prison, incarceration is strongly correlated with negative social and economic outcomes. The people who have been incarcerated have very low earnings, high rates of unemployment, and experience little earnings growth over the life course. Because of school failure, criminal involvement, mental health problems and related challenges, those who go to prison have very poor economic opportunities even before incarceration,” the report explained. “These pre-existing traits make it difficult to precisely estimate the economic effects of incarceration.”

“Still, the experience of incarceration may undermine the productivity and employment opportunities of those incarcerated. Controlled experiments further show that job seekers with criminal records face extreme reluctance from prospective employers, and criminal records can have lasting employment consequences,” the authors added.

As it relates to fentanyl and other synthetic analogues, dealers often aren’t aware that such substances are in drugs they may sell. Substances like fentanyl are added to heroin before the drugs reach the United States. A June 2014 story from the Boston Globe quoted a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official who noted, "Nearly all the heroin that has plagued New England with fatal overdoses in recent months is produced in Colombia and shipped to Mexico, where authorities believe drug cartels add the painkiller fentanyl to make a potent combination destined for the United States."

There’s a lot more than we can and should be doing to address the root causes of drugs. States have done this through diversion programs. Every dollar spent on treatment saves $4 in healthcare costs and $7 in corrections costs, which is why states have slowly turned to model of addressing addiction as more of a health problem.

It’s easy to play on people’s fears about crime despite the evidence that crime has declined or to lockup more people, where they’ll be warehoused rather than rehabilitated. The FIRST STEP Act doesn’t address sentencing and other back-end reforms that have been implemented by the states, but it does address rehabilitation by giving those in prison the opportunity to lower their risk of recidivism by participating in programming that will benefit them and their communities when they return to society.