Prison, crime rates show nationwide decline over 5 year period
Between 2010 and 2015, the nation’s imprisonment rate declined by 8.4 percent, according to analysis of Justice Department data by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Over the same period, 35 states have seen their prison population decline, and the rate of violent and property crime is down nearly 15 percent.
“The rates of violence and property crime reported to law enforcement have declined by more than half since their 1991 peaks, returning to levels not seen since the 1960s,” according the Pew.
As crime levels grew in the 90’s due to the crack cocaine epidemic, federal and state lawmakers responded with new policies under the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The act made sweeping changes to US correctional policy by imposing longer prison sentences for federal crimes and encouraged states to implement similar penalties, such as the Rockefeller Drug Laws in New York.
Experts believe the long term decline in prison population and crime rates is due to a number of factors; among them: effective policing, the waning of the crack cocaine epidemic, the increase of car theft-prevention devices, reduced cash in favor of electronic payment methods, and increased incarceration of high-risk offenders, the study said.
There has also been bipartisan Congressional support for criminal justice reform. Democrats view sentencing policies, particularly at the federal level, as destructive to minority communities, and conservatives debate whether “prison costs translate into better public safety,” according to the Wall Street Journal. While there is consensus, little has been achieved substantially in terms of legislation.
It is at the state level where reform has been effective. In California, a 2014 ballot initiative, Proposition 47, gave certain nonviolent offenders an opportunity to reduce their felony convictions to misdemeanors. In Indiana, prisoners with shorter sentences and good time credit were diverted from state prison to local jail facilities. Other state reforms divert drug offenders, and those suffering from mental illness, into treatment centers instead of jail.
In 10 states where the rate of imprisonment dropped the most, the crime rate fell by more than 14 percent over the last five years, Pew’s analysis found. In the 10 states where the imprisonment rate rose, crimes rates declined by just over 8 percent.
While there are dramatic long-term declines in rates, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) does show an increase in violent crime. The murder rate rose in 2015 by as much as 3.1 percent, but was concentrated in a number of large cities, especially seen in Chicago, Illinois.
Criminologists think the rise could be attributed to growing heroin and prescription opioid markets, as well as strained relationships between police and residents in some communities.
At the same time, the number of background checks for gun purchases that the FBI conducted in 2016 grew to over 27.5 million, representing an increase of 19 percent, or over 4 million, newly released bureau figures show. Each background check represents at least one gun sold in the retail sector.