Policy Documents

Punishment Up, Crime Down

Morgan O. Reynolds –
April 1, 1997

The number of serious crimes has fallen in many towns and cities across the country. New York City, for example, had fewer than 1,000 murders in 1996, the lowest number in nearly 30 years. In downtown Houston, overall crime has dropped by half during the past six years, and violent crimes are down 67 percent. Between 1992 and 1995, the national murder rate fell 12 percent, the violent crime rate 8 percent, and the reported burglary rate 15 percent.

Why the decline? Dozens of solid empirical studies, mostly by economists, have concluded that offenders respond to incentives and "deterrence works." One of the leading researchers, Isaac Ehrlich of SUNY Buffalo, recently wrote, "Taken as a whole, these studies offer a mountain of evidence consistent with the hypothesis that both negative and positive incentives have a deterrent effect on crime."

Other criminologists maintain that the causes of the decline lie elsewhere. Alfred Blumstein, a prominent Carnegie Mellon University criminologist, attributes the decline to a "maturing of the drug market." But the incarceration of more violent criminals and burglars for longer periods of time is a major factor in the lower rate of serious crime.

The National Center for Policy Analysis has created an index of "expected punishment" to track the "price" that the justice system imposes on criminals. The index measures the probability of arrest, conviction, and imprisonment and the median prison sentence served for the crime.

When expected punishment plummeted after 1950, the rate of serious crime soared. And as expected punishment increased since 1980, the rate of serious crime leveled off and then fell. (Serious crime is defined as the reported violent crimes of murder/non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, plus the property crime of burglary.)

By 1995, expected punishment had risen to almost 22 days from an early-1980s low of fewer than 10 days.

In response, serious crime per 1,000 persons has decreased by 27 percent since its high point in 1980.

The improvement, however, is not as good as it may appear. Much of the reduction in serious crime was due to the fall in the burglary rate, and reported violent crime actually increased 31 percent between 1985 and 1990. The reported crime rate has trended upward partly because of improvements in police record-keeping and greater willingness by the public to report crime. While expected punishment has increased recently, in 1995 it remained less than half what it was in 1950. The serious crime rate is three times that of the 1950s.

The impact of taking criminals off the streets and keeping them locked up longer has been noticeable in many cities, but incarceration cannot carry the whole load. Harvard economist Richard B. Freeman finds that church attendance is a better predictor of who escapes poverty, drug addiction, and crime than are family income, family structure, and other variables. An exhaustive review article in Criminology in 1995 found that even under adverse social and economic conditions, churchgoing serves as "an insulator against crime and delinquency."

We're rediscovering the importance of character formation: teaching the difference between right and wrong and the value of morality. To reinforce the importance of character, a society must have a justice system that treats criminals as fully responsible for the harm they do and exacts a proportionate price from those who do that harm.


Morgan O. Reynolds is director of the Criminal Justice Center at the National Center for Policy Analysis.


For more information ...

What to Do about Crime? James Q. Wilson and six criminal justice experts discuss what causes crime and ways to address those causes. (The Independent Institute, January 1995, 16 pp.)

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