Violent crime and mass incarceration must be tackled together

Recent mass shootings in America, including a number committed by individuals with long criminal records, have fueled a long-running debate. On the one hand there are those pointing to the overall rise in homicides and decrying the lack of rigor in the criminal justice system. On the other side are those who see the criminal justice system as inherently unfair and want to repeal or even abolish it.

Both camps are, in some ways, right, and they are also, in some ways, wrong about America’s challenges regarding violent crime and incarceration. To understand this, it helps to consider both outcomes (violent crime and incarceration) simultaneously rather than trying to explain them without context.

The attached chart shows international data on the rate at which people are behind bars in different countries and the homicide rate in those countries. (It remains the most reliable global metric of violent crime.) Each quadrant includes many countries; The chart contains three illustrative examples of each.

In everyone’s eyes, the ideal place to represent is in the lower left quadrant of low violence and low incarceration. Western European countries and our neighbor to the north, Canada, enjoy the lack of public safety Americans enjoy without having to endure the cost and brutality of a massive prison system. But there is considerable disagreement about how to arrive at this ideal.

Anti-incarceration activists see the United States as fitting into the upper left quadrant of other authoritarian regimes that imprison large numbers of people without justifiable reason—think Iran jailing feminist protesters. If you assume that the United States does not have a real criminal program and that incarceration is mainly for petty crimes or purely an expression of racism, then the solution is obvious: reducing incarceration would bring the United States into the ideal quadrant with Western Europe.

Of course, some people are wrongfully incarcerated in the U.S. Still, about 60 percent of people in state prisons are serving a sentence for a violent crime, not for protesting or smoking pot, and many of the other 40 percent have committed violent crimes in their current sentences. The US homicide rate, at 8.1 per 100,000 in 2021, is much higher than its peer countries with low incarceration rates that populate the ideal quadrant. (In most European countries, the homicide rate is less than 1 per 100,000.) If Norway had the U.S. homicide rate and maintained its current ratio of inmates per homicide, its incarceration rate would increase 13 times and exceed that of the United States.

Rather than dropping the US into the ideal quadrant, reducing incarceration without reducing violent crime would make the US more like the lower right quadrant. These countries, including Mexico and Guatemala, have rampant violent crime that goes largely unpunished. People flee these countries to the US because of fear of violent crime, not the other way around.

Anti-crime advocates talk as if they believe the United States is already in a lawless quadrant with countries like Mexico and Guatemala. From that point of view, ramping up in prison seems sensible.

But, in truth, the United States is in disastrous shape, joining places like Russia and Brazil in the quadrant with the worst of both worlds: high homicide rates and high incarceration rates. The challenge to hardliners is that if higher incarceration rates reduce violent crime, we would already be a very safe nation.

At the risk of sounding off, I break out its chorus kumbaya, There is a logical path for both parties to move America into the low-crime, low-incarceration quadrant populated mostly by other developed nations. This requires the tough-on-crime camp to abandon the idea that more incarceration will reduce violence and the anti-incarceration camp to stop reducing violent crime in America. (“It was worse in the 1980s,” is a familiar refrain, no comfort to today’s grieving families of homicide victims.) Instead, both parties can rally around areas of health (e.g., Medicaid expansion), law enforcement (e.g., focused deterrence). ), and tax policies (eg, raising the price of alcohol) that have good evidence of reducing violent crime, thereby reducing incarceration. This policy agenda will require a broad coalition. The first step towards this is for everyone in the debate to admit that the people they are yelling at have a good point too.