Crime and Punishment: Yes, the Inmate Population Is Growing-But That Has Given Us Safer Streets. A Texas Scholar Argues for Tough Sentences in Prisons Better Designed to Rehabilitate
Reynolds, Morgan, Newsweek
Byline: Morgan Reynolds
The point seems obvious to most Americans: punishment reduces crime. Yes, prison takes a toll on the family the convict leaves behind. But crime also takes a toll on its victims and society at large. And crime rates have fallen by one third over the past decade while the prison and jail population have risen to 2 million. Most people are able to connect these dots.
True, our violent-crime rate remains too high, concentrated on inner-city victims. But we no longer have high property-crime rates by international standards; our burglary rate, for example, is below average for industrial nations. And the improved trends have come as we have handed out more and longer prison sentences. There is a connection.
Some history is in order. In the 1960s and early 1970s, prison was considered backward and too harshly retributive. Prison populations fell as we channeled convicts into community rehabilitation programs. But Americans became so fed up with criminals and criminality that they virtually forced their governments into incarcerating more people. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the prison population was growing by up to 9 percent a year. This raised the risk of prison, but the time actually served remained relatively short. Only in recent years, when both the prison population and sentences have increased, has the threat of prison begun to deter crime. Deterrence depends on fear, and that can be increased by meting out punishment swiftly, certainly and severely, consistent with justice.
We've seen this trend at work in Texas, where crime rocketed during the 1980s as expected punishment plunged. …