Bubba vs. the Law School Professors

My good friend Frank Green has published a front-page story in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch proclaiming this in the first paragraph: “State and federal prison populations continue to grow to record levels, but the effect on the dropping crime rate is unclear.”

Here are the facts that leave sundry law school professors, criminologists and miscellaneous do-gooders scratching their heads, wondering if there could be a connection:

  • Virginia’s prison population has increased 35 percent in the 10 years ending June 30, 2004.
  • Crime rates have been falling steadily since 1992-93, according to one source quoted by Green, or about 15 percent in the decade of the 1990s, according to another.

While some of the soft-on-crime weenies quoted in the article concede that putting criminals in jail might have contributed in some small way to tumbling crime rates, they also cited a strong economy, the aging of the population and other factors. Jonathon Turley, a professor at the George Washington School of Law, is dubious that packing crooks in jail–the “warehousing approach”–has done much to lower the crime rate. “I expect there is some impact, but the population of criminal actors in society is so large that it would be difficult to show a pronounced effect.”

Let my friend Bubba spell it out for you, Mr. Turley: When you put criminals in prison, you take them off the streets where they commit crimes. It’s not hard to understand.

At least one source in Green’s story stated the obvious. Said Richard P. Kern, executive director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission: “We’ve shortened a lot of criminal careers.”

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  1. Yeah I think putting criminals in jail and warehousing them there probably cuts back on crime – at least a bit.

    I’d credit the economic boom more than anything else for the drop in crime, however. The drop has occurred natioally. It’s taken place in both “tough on crime” states and “weak on crime states”. The one thing holding steady is the rise in personal income. I think the revitalization of urban cores has probably helped as well. The more slums you close down/revitalize, the harder it is for organized crime to operate.

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    If we had no jail system we would suffer the costs (some would say enjoy the opportunity) of defending ourselves and our property. See current news story on Florida gun law.

    Jail doesn’t prevent all crime, some prisoners proceed to commit crimes against each other or guards: some guards commit crimes against prisoners. That means the benefit is asymptotic – we never get to zero, just as with environmental cleanliness. Even if we throw everyone in jail we don’t prevent all crime, and we are not willing to live that way, with absolute ultimate rules for everything we do. The benefit is not worth the cost.

    Putting criminals in jail probably cuts back on crime. The question is, when does the cost curve cross the benefit curve?

    If we can’t measure what we are doing, how do we ever know if we have effective government?

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