Pennsylvania: Increased Incarceration Had Limited Effect on Reducing Crime for Over Two Decades

February 12, 2015

Since 1990, increased incarceration had a limited impact on reducing crime nationwide, concludes a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. In What Caused the Crime Decline?, a team of economic and criminal justice researchers examine over 40 years of data, gathered from 50 states and the 50 largest cities.

The report offers a close look at Pennsylvania, where one in 200 adult Pennsylvanians is currently incarcerated. Pennsylvania spent $2.111 billion on state corrections in 2013. With a 2013 crime rate 22 percent lower than the national average (and property crimes accounting for approximately 86 percent of crimes in the state), Pennsylvania imprisons its citizens at levels 6 percent lower than the national average; 394 people per 100,000, compared to 496 for the U.S.

The Center will host a briefing call today at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the report’s findings. Dial In information: 1-800-514-0831; Confirmation Number: 38955210

Nationwide and Pennsylvania-specific findings are summarized below:

  • Crime: Crime across the United States has steadily declined over the last two decades. Crime in Pennsylvania dropped from its height in 1980 to 2013 by 29 percent. And the national crime rate was cut in half.
     
  • Incarceration: Increased incarceration has been declining in its effectiveness as a crime control tactic for more than 30 years. It had some effect, likely in the range of 0 to 10 percent, on reducing crime in the 1990s. Since 2000, however, increased incarceration had a negligible effect on crime. The effectiveness of increased incarceration in Pennsylvania has been steadily declining since 1980, when there were 8,171 prisoners. Incarceration’s effectiveness reached a level that was essentially zero in 1992, when the prison population was 24,974. A number of states, including California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Texas, have successfully reduced their prison populations while crime continues to fall.
     
  • Other Factors: Increased numbers of police officers, some data-driven policing techniques, changes in income, decreased alcohol consumption, and an aging population played a role in the crime decline. In particular, the report finds CompStat is associated with a 5 to 15 percent decrease in crime. In Pennsylvania, CompStat was introduced in Philadelphia in 1998. The report also includes new information on the effects of unemployment, the death penalty, and other theories on crime.

“Some have argued that despite the immense social and fiscal costs of America’s mass incarceration system, it has succeeded at reducing crime,” said report co-author Oliver Roeder. “But the data tells a different story: if reducing crime is the end goal of our criminal justice system, increased incarceration is a poor investment.”

 “This report amplifies what many on the left and right have come to realize in recent years: mass incarceration isn’t working,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “A better use of resources would be improving economic opportunities, supporting 21st century policing practices, and expanding treatment and rehabilitation programs, all of which have proven records of reducing crime, without incarceration’s high costs.”

“This groundbreaking empirical analysis from the Brennan Center shows that, on examination, the easy answers do not explain incarceration’s effect on crime,” wrote Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and University Professor at Columbia University, in the Foreword. “This report presents a rigorous and sophisticated empirical analysis performed on the most recent, comprehensive dataset to date.”

“Pennsylvania took an important first step towards reducing its reliance on incarceration by enacting the Criminal Justice Reform Act in 2012,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, report co-author. “But, this report’s findings support further reforms to reduce Pennsylvania’s prison population – and prove this can be achieved without added crime.”

Click here to read the full report, What Caused the Crime Decline?

Read about the crime decline in California, Illinois, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia

Click here to read more about the Brennan Center’s work to improve the criminal justice system.

For more information or to speak with an expert, contact Naren Daniel at (646) 292-8381 or naren.daniel@nyu.edu.