When Crime Drops, Should Imprisonment Rise?
Conservatives love laughing at those classic New York Times headlines about how, even as crime was falling, the imprisonment rate was going up. Silly liberals: Didn't they even consider that rising imprisonment might be causing the drop in crime?
However, there was a simple truth behind the Paper of Record's naivete. All else being equal, more crime really does mean more incarceration, and less crime less incarceration, merely because the number of people you can throw in prison depends on the number of people who break the law. Sometimes a dramatic policy change will disrupt this relationship, but we shouldn't be surprised when it holds.
That's why I don't find the Vox chart Kevin Drum draws attention to as damning as he does. (It's based on Pew data.) The arrow and question are not in the original chart -- I believe Drum added them -- and each dot represents a state:
Obviously, the chart does not look like the arrow. But it's not clear it should look like the arrow, even if incarceration really does decrease crime: This effect will always be in conflict with the general tendency for lower crime to go with less incarceration. Sometimes the incarceration-fights-crime effect will win out, as numerous observers (though not the NYT) saw in the early stages of the crime drop, but it won't always.
Many across the political spectrum agree that we've reached the limits of what rising imprisonment can accomplish -- and I'm basically with them, though I think we should be careful given how dubious the public remains. But I wouldn't put too much stock in this particular piece of evidence.
Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen