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Crime will eventually go up. But mass incarceration should go away forever.

Why higher crime and criminal justice reform don’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — at odds.

An inmate sits at a California prison.
An inmate sits at a California prison.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the past several years, there have been troubling signs of an uptick in America’s homicide rates — a potential deviation from the long-term trend in which crime has dramatically dropped since the mid-1990s.

Many people have pushed back, arguing that there is in fact no uptick and if there was, a year or two does not make a trend. Among those arguing this are reform-minded groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, which wants the US to dramatically shrink its prison population to, hopefully, lose its status as the world’s leader in incarceration.

The subtext here is clear: Crime reduction should always trump criminal justice reform that aims to peel back mass incarceration. So if crime really is rising, criminal justice reform will need to be pushed aside, and the advocacy work these groups have been doing for years will be for nothing.

But as criminal justice expert John Pfaff recently argued on Twitter, crime-fighting policies shouldn’t always doom criminal justice reform. The gist of Pfaff’s argument: Even if some punitive “tough-on-crime” policies, such as more incarceration, can reduce crime, those benefits shouldn’t be readily accepted as an obvious good. They need to be evaluated alongside the policies’ potential costs — which can not only be high in budget terms, but also in their uneven impact on black Americans, who have been disproportionately locked up over the years.

Read Pfaff’s full thoughts:

There are a few things to unpack here.

For one, the research shows that mass incarceration and other punitive policies didn’t contribute hugely to the crime drop. The thinking is simple: While more incarceration may have been necessary to tamp down on crime at first, in the 1970s the US began locking up so many people for way too long — putting a lot of people in prison who weren’t likely to reoffend. After all, studies suggests that people age out of crime, so letting them out of prison a couple, five, 10, or even 20 years down the line — instead of the much longer sentences that can be applied today (up to life without parole) — might not pose a threat to public safety.

This shows exactly why weighing the costs and benefits of crime-fighting policies is so important. Did locking up way more people stop some crime? Maybe. But was it as significant as policymakers initially hoped? It doesn’t look like it, especially over the past couple decades. So were the costs linked to more incarceration — particularly the large budgets for running prisons and black Americans’ elevated distrust in the criminal justice system — worth it?

Consider, too, that punitive policies can lead to more crime. For example, a part-time, nonviolent drug offender might get caught and imprisoned for small-time drug dealing, but end up placed with gang members. For his survival, he joins their gang, and remains in that gang once he’s let out — essentially transitioning to a full-time life of crime. It’s hard to know how often this really happens, but it seems much more plausible if the justice system is incarcerating people for lengthy periods of time, tarnishing their social networks outside of prison and leaving them only with the networks they build in prison.

Similarly, distrust in black communities can foster more crime. Police in these areas work best when they have the cooperation of locals — to draw on early warnings, potential witnesses, and so on. But if black people see the criminal justice system as abusive, they’re going to be less likely to cooperate with police and more likely to take the law into their own hands to settle conflicts with other people. (For a fantastic read about this, I highly recommend Ghettoside by Jill Leovy.)

Yet these kinds of costs aren’t often thought about in public policy discussions about how to fight crime. It’s frequently assumed that more punitive criminal justice laws and more incarceration will always work to reduce crime — that’s essentially what drove the “tough-on-crime” era of the 1970s through 1990s. But even if they do cut down on crime, the costs may not be worth the gains.


Watch: How mandatory minimums helped drive mass incarceration

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