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The Crime Decline Dividend

The dramatic drop in crime rates in San Diego County ? with the exception of hate crimes and bank robberies – mirrored to varying extents around the country, cries out for explanation, especially given the context of economic crisis, usually thought to increase crime. Here, though, citizens must be cautious. In the recent debate between the top contenders for California Attorney General in 2011, Los Angeles District Attorney Tom Cooley and then San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris (who won), Cooley asserted that historically low crime rates in California were due primarily to increased mass incarceration. And indeed, California’s prisons are operating today at 200% of capacity, leading to various federal court orders mandating reductions of some 40,000 prisoners, a decision just recently affirmed by the Supreme Court. This is a controversial move, since the state has the highest recidivism rate in the US ? with 66% of prisoners returning within 3 years of release – and is cutting money for prisoner rehabilitation, social services and education, all associated with successful prisoner reintegration. California’s mass incarceration boom, the nation’s largest, saw prisoners increase from 25,000 in 1980 to some 170,000 today ? supported by the prison guards union, the most powerful lobby in the state – mirroring prison expansion in the US as a whole. With only 5% of the world’s population, the US now has 25% of the world’s prisoners; some 2.4 million persons, one out of every 100 adults. California built 21 new prisons from 1985-2005, over one a year. And in 2009, the US saw its incarceration rate increase for the 37th year in a row, though this number has been slowing.

Yet despite the widespread attribution of dramatic crime drops of recent decades to mass imprisonment or to the so-called broken windows/zero tolerance policing, where police vigorously crack down on petty crimes and misdemeanors, the empirical evidence for these theses is shaky to non-existent. While the most thorough research on earlier crime declines attributed only a limited role to prison expansion ? 25% at the most ? even that statistic is highly questionable, given equivalent drops in crime during Canada in the same period, with no corresponding prison boom. Even those who attribute some causality to the 1990s drop in crime to incarceration see no evidence for even a limited role of imprisonment in explaining the current crime decline. As Richard Rosenfeld, President of the American Society of Crimino logy noted, “from 2000-2009, the rate of incarceration slowed?So the current decline can’t be ascribed to incarceration.” Here, comparison is essential in understanding the factors behind successive crime declines.

In the years 1993-2001, for example, San Diego was second only to New York in experiencing the biggest crime drop of any city in the US, with violent crime decreasing by 45% and homicides decreasing by 62%, similar to New York rates. But New York’s crime drop was associated with aggressive zero tolerance policing and a concomitant 50% increase in misdemeanor arrests, while San Diego’s was accomplished through a community policing model that resulted in a 1% decrease in misdemeanor arrests. In fact, from 1994 to 2000, prison sentences in San Diego were reduced by 25%. At a time when California, home to the most expensive prison system in the world, costing roughly $50,000 annually per prisoner, now spend s over 45% more of the general fund on prisons – almost 11% – than on higher education, which only gets 7.5%, this is a significant achievement. For California prison expenditures have increased in the last three decades by the astronomical figure of over 1000%, costs that are responsible for a substantial percentage of the state’s massive budget deficit which is now driving cuts to education and badly needed services for our youth essential for reducing crime. Moreover, the combination of aggressive zero tolerance models of policing, the war on drugs, and the related incarceration boom, have all been widely associated with racial profiling, most especially of poor young blacks and Latinos. As a result, these constituencies now disproportionately fill the state and nation’s prisons, coming to some two-thirds of the total number, in a sharp reversal from prison demographics in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Though the recent crime declines have brought sighs of relief from crime victims and citizens, current statewide and national trends arguably threaten these gains, as more money goes towards prisons and away from public education and social services at all levels. One indication of fiscal priorities is that the average starting salaries of California correctional officers are higher than those of Assistant Professors at the University of California, the world’s premiere multi-university, and that was before the 10% across the board cuts in faculty salaries over the last few years. Black residents of California are now more likely to go to prison than college, a trend expressed in hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur’s lyrics in which he notes: “You can’t conceal the fact, the penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with blacks.” National statistics in this regard are compelling. Studies have shown that incarceration rates for 18-24 year old high school dropouts were 31 times higher than their college educated counterparts, and for young black men, sixty times more likely. More recently, the increasing criminalization of immigrants ? both documented and undocumented ? is an especially worrisome trend. For a host of new social scientific studies, including by Robert Sampson, Chair of Harvard University’s Sociology Department and criminologist Jacob Stowell and colleagues ? not only rebut the myth of immigrant criminality but also strongly suggest that immigration by Latinos and others to US big cities not only correlate with lower crime rates, but may be playing a causal role in crime reduction, rejuvenating many disenfranchised communities. Indeed, big cities which are hotbeds for Latino immigration, such as San Diego, New York and Los Angeles, have experienced large crime declines, with San Diego and New York today both among the nation’s safest cities.

The county, state and nation’s historically low crime rates are all good news. But the fact remains that such developments may be reversed if we continue to spend more money on incarceration than on education. For San Diego County, California and the nation, investment in public education, from K-12 to the university level, are essential to securing a safe and prosperous future. Let us hope that in this era of bloated prison expansion, rampant white collar crime – notably on Wall Street – and concomitant fiscal crisis that citizens and politicians pay heed to these lessons and ensure that we choose the right priorities for California and the nation in the 21st century.

Tom Reifer is Associate Professor of Sociology and an Affiliated Faculty in the Ethnic Studies programme, as well as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, at the University of San Diego, California.

This article was originally published by the Transnational Institute.

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