THE RATE OF imprisonment in the United States has increased consistently from 1973 through 2000, growing by 920 percent! During that period, the rate of crime rose 42 percent. Thus, over this thirty-year span, as imprisonment increased each and every year, crime was not suppressed; in fact, it was as high in 1991 as it was two decades earlier. A further examination of the relationship between imprisonment and crime rates is found in the next chapter. For now, it is useful to remember that when imprisonment rises, crime sometimes goes down and sometimes up. In other words, in the long run of history measured from 1973 through 2000, a rising rate of imprisonment does not assure citizens of the United States that they are receiving any greater crime control protection.
In response to such a revelation or reading of the data, proponents of the imprisonment binge might propose one of two explanations. The first is that crime would have increased much more than 42 percent if imprisonment had not increased by 920 percent over the past three decades, and several imprisonment proponents have used elaborate statistical models in an effort to prove just such a point (see Clear 1996 for discussion). But we can never know if this statement is true, and this idea can only be accepted on faith. Second, imprisonment proponents will avert our attention away from the long-term association between incarceration and crime to short-term trends, especially those evident in the 1990s. They argue that we must look at periods where the increase in imprisonment had been in effect for some time before we can see benefits. Ignoring twenty years of data that does not fit with their position, however, this argument seems to miss the broader issues involved.