The many purposes of prisons
James Alan Fox 

September 4, 2001

Last Wednesday's editorial, "The purpose of prisons," committed the statistical sin of confusing correlation with causation. Commenting on a Justice Department report that a record 6.47 million Americans, one out of every 32 adults, are under correctional supervision (serving time behind bars or on probation or parole), the Herald credited the rise in prison populations for bringing about the recent sharp decline in crime.

The reality is, however, that most of the 1990s crime drop, in Boston and elsewhere, was associated with a dissolving crack market, a booming economy, the shift to community-oriented policing, investments in prevention programs, community mobilization and an aging U.S. population.

Prison populations had been expanding long before the crime rate started its 1990s nose dive. From 1985 to 1991, the count of U.S. prisoners increased 63 percent while the crime rate rose 13 percent, including a 36 percent jump in violent crime.

I do not dispute that expanding prisons had some positive impact on the crime rate. In fact, Professor William Spelman of the University of Texas has shown through a statistical analysis that about one-quarter of the drop in crime of the 1990s can be linked to correctional incapacitation - that is, more prisoners and longer sentences.

Those who take a get-tough posture also tend to support the "three strikes" movement to repeat offenders that swept across America from Washington state where it began in 1993 to Washington, D.C., where our congressmen see themselves as the Pedro Martinezes of politics. They are eager to show their constituencies that they can strike out the side against crime.

Just last week, however, the Washington-based Sentencing Project reported that California's three-strikes law, one of the toughest in the land, had had no impact on the state's crime rate. While it is certainly logical that incarcerating felons for long periods of time (even life) curtails their criminal activity, the bottom-line question is whether "three strikes" works any better that other sentencing strategies.

Allowing judges discretion is far more rational and effective than using a number like three to dictate sentences. It is the nature of offenders, not the number of offenses, that should guide sentencing decisions. There are, for example, first- and second-time felons who are more dangerous than many three-time losers. More important, keeping felons incarcerated well past their prime criminal years is not the wisest use of correctional resources. Three-strikes laws have resulted in a growing number of aging prisoners and longer sentences for non-violent offenders.

At present, 49 percent of U.S. prisoners are locked up for non-violent crimes, drug offenses, property crimes and offenses against public order (for example, drunken driving and weapons violations). We need to be far more selective in sentencing practices, saving prison cells for dangerous felons and using other measures (for example, electronic monitoring) for the rest.

Unfortunately, the great 1990s crime drop may have ended with the close of the 1990s. Since then, many cities, including Boston, have seen crime levels inch upward. Part of this resurgence may be the result of our failed "lock 'em up" strategy. With a four-fold increase in prisoners over the past two decades, we had to expect that eventually the number of ex-offenders released from prison would increase as well.

More ex-cons are now returning to their old neighborhoods, and sometimes to their old ways, with bad attitudes and inadequate training. Many have no marketable skills with which to compete for jobs; some remain functionally illiterate.

As we crammed more and more prisoners into our correctional facilities, we also shifted the emphasis away from treatment and rehabilitation, once believed to be as important a purpose of prison as incapacitation, and more toward pure punishment.

Victim advocate Marc Klass, whose 12-year-old daughter Polly was kidnapped and murdered in 1993 by a repeat offender, was initially the lead voice behind the three-strikes movement. He has since changed his tune. "Trying to cure the diseases of crime and violence just by building more prisons is like trying to cure cancer by building more cemeteries," said Klass.

We all can agree that prisons, unfortunately, are necessary institutions in today's society. Still, when it comes to prison populations, bigger does not always mean better.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice  at Northeastern University.