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Incarceration Nation

Want lower crime rates? Build fewer prisons

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According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, violent crime was up by 2.5 percent last year. That's the first increase in five years, and the largest since 1991. And it happened as the prison juggernaut continued to roll on.

The World Prison Population List, which tracks incarceration rates in more than 200 countries, estimates that there are about 9 million prisoners in the world. And although the United States contains only 4 percent of the world's population, we account for nearly one-quarter of its prisoners: The U.S. prison population is 2.3 million currently serving, and still growing.

There are a variety of explanations for why this increase in crime could be happening. Some say that it's because of the guys who caught 10- and 20-year sentences back when the sentencing guideline/mandatory minimum craze started: Those cons are getting out now, the theory goes … and they're going back to their old tricks. Others claim that the feds have been emphasizing homeland security and anti-terrorism the past few years — at the expense of good-old-fashioned law and order. Many of the people taking this position want to increase spending for cops and jails, and pass tougher laws. Many of the people taking this position are also running for office this year.

There are even some who say that the increased crime rate is just a statistical glitch — that the "echo boom" generation is entering prime crime-committing age, which is roughly between 18 to 30 years old or so. The problem with that theory is that in California, which has the most people in this demographic, violent crime rates actually decreased last year. Richard Hertling, deputy assistant attorney general for legal policy, admitted, "We really don't know what's driving this. We have to be careful not to overinterpret or overreact." So please, Sen. Santorum, hold off any new sentencing laws until the smoke clears.

Since no one has come up with the definitive answer as to how crime can be increasing even as we throw more criminals in jail, I'll do my own speculating. (Why not? I took a sociology course once.) I turned to California to see how crime rates there could be twisted around to bolster my pre-conceived notions.

For the past decade, California has experienced both a drop in crime and a drop in the incarceration rate. Since 1999, the portion of the population behind bars has dropped by 7 percent. According to the lock-'em-up crowd, this should result in more criminals being out on the streets … but in 2005 the violent crime rate in California fell by 5.1 percent.

Conventional wisdom has always had it that locking up more people will decrease the crime rate. In California, the reverse has been true: Crime started going down after incarceration rates dropped.

There are similar statistics for juveniles, the people some are blaming for the national increase. Of the 218,000 California juveniles arrested in 2005, 89 percent were referred to probation departments. The number of juveniles who ended up in California Youth Authority Joints decreased from 0.7 percent in 2002 to 0.3 percent last year. Obviously, something is going on in the Golden State.

Prisons, it has been noted, do nothing so well as perpetuate themselves by producing repeat customers. Twenty years of wild prison growth in the U.S. has made doing time an intergenerational experience. I've witnessed many father/son — and even some grandfather/grandson — reunions in the joint. Among inner-city youth, prison has become a rite of passage. Certainly more of them end up in the can than in college. Maybe some of the disaffected youth would benefit from having a father around when they are growing up.

Last year, the California Department of Corrections even changed its name: It's now the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. There's a novel idea. Most cons and ex-cons don't believe in rehabilitation, but who knows, maybe it will work. For sure, people who have been treated badly for a decade in prison don't usually become model citizens.

Prisons are necessary; even I concede that. But California's recent history suggests we are using them too much.

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