Even among people who think our jails are overcrowded and that many people guilty of drug crimes and low-level misdemeanors should not be imprisoned, there's still the sense that violent criminals need to be taken off the streets. Even if incarceration is not a general deterrent, at least it will be a specific deterrent to those individuals, preventing them from committing future violent offenses.
But new studies are showing that, even in some of the nation's most notoriously violent cities, reducing the number of people sentenced to jail or prison actually corresponds to a drop in violent crime.
A report from The People's Lobby, Reclaim Chicago, and Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice showed that as Cook County prosecutors decreased the number of incarceration sentences, "public safety has improved, benefiting everyone, but especially the Black communities disproportionately impacted by incarceration and violence." The report tracked data from the past two years made available under an initiative by Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx.
Foxx's office, probably more (in)famous for its role in handling criminal charges against actor Jussie Smollet, created a data portal, showing how the office handles felony cases from initiation to sentencing. That data showed a 19 percent decrease in Foxx's first two years in office, and a corresponding eight percent decrease in violent crimes reported in Chicago. As the report contends:
Consistent with Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans' report showing that higher rates of pre-trial incarceration don't make us safer, this new data on incarceration rates suggests that sentencing more people to incarceration doesn't make us safer. The root causes of many crimes, including poverty and lack of mental health services or substance use treatment, go unaddressed or are made worse through prison sentences. Incarceration disrupts what little security and stability people have, hurting entire communities by separating parents from children, workers from employment and caregivers from the people who need them most.
According to research reported by The Appeal, incarceration rates have had no impact on the steadily declining crime rate nationwide, and in fact, there is as much data supporting a conclusion that incarceration increases crime rates. Additionally, a study conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice showed that 27 states decreased both crime and imprisonment over a 10-year span.
"The crux of the matter is that tougher sentences hardly deter crime," says David Roodman, an economist working with the Open Philanthropy Project, "and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release."
Foxx's Cook County office may be an outlier when it comes to transparency, but it appears many district attorneys are similarly reducing their jail and prison populations, without a resulting increase in crime rates.