Skip Navigation

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

Report Supports Reforms to Reduce Virginia’s Prison Population – and Proves This Can Be Achieved Without Added Crime.

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 Virginia, where there has been a drastic increase in the state’s prison population. Virginia has the third lowest violent crime rate in the nation. Despite this, the state has the nation’s 13th highest incarceration rate, with one of every 89 adults incarcerated. As of 2013, Virginia imprisons 448 people per 100,000, compared to 496 for the U.S. In 1995, Virginia eliminated parole and implemented a “truth-in-sentencing” system requiring state inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. This led to drastic increases in the incarcerated population. Virginia spent $1.174 billion on corrections in 2013.

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 Virginia-specific findings are summarized below:

  • Crime: Crime across the United States has steadily declined over the last two decades. Crime in Virginia dropped by 52 percent from its height in 1981 to 2013. 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 Virginia has decreased steadily since 1980, when Virginia had 8,920 prisoners. Around 2000, it reached its lowest levels of effectiveness — essentially zero. At this time, the incarcerated population was 30,168. 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 Virginia, CompStat was introduced in Virginia Beach in 2004. 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.”

“In Virginia, major reforms to reduce incarceration have yet to be enacted,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, report co-author. “In 1995, the state eliminated parole and implemented a “truth-in-sentencing” system requiring state inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. This led to drastic increases in the incarcerated population, to about 37,000 by 2013. This report’s findings support reforms to reduce Virginia’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, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

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