Crime rates continue to fall across the country, while incarceration rates reach historic levels. A non-partisan panel came together Thursday to examine the relationship between incarceration and crime.
Former Attorney General Bob Butterworth remembers a childhood of unlocked doors, watchful neighbors, and safety. He saw the steep uptick in crime during the 1980s and 1990s, and played a part in the ensuing crackdown. As the state’s foremost lawyer, he said his hands were tied.
“We had to get tough on crime. We had to get back the respect of the people in our communities. We had to basically say if you commit a crime, you’re going to do the time,” he said.
It’s a familiar story: a crackdown on crime can bring back the neighborhoods of yesteryear. Crowded prisons mean safer streets, right? But Brian Elderbroom from the Urban Institute, says it’s not that simple.
“Crime prevention is not a binary choice between incarceration and nothing. There’s a lot that we can do to prevent crime that doesn’t involve locking people up,” he said.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the US has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. Elderbroom says incarceration doesn’t affect crime rates the way we think it should.
“Let me say that again, the states that have decreased incarceration have seen a greater decrease in crime than states that continue to incarcerate more and more people,” he said.
Experts say factors like poverty, health, and changes in demographics and policing impact crime rates. Elderbroom says these factors could play a greater role than simply locking people up.
“And in fact, a Britain Center on Justice study which some of you may have seen just last year, showed that over the last fifteen years none of the continued decreases we’ve seen in crime could be attributed to increases in incarceration,” he said.
Nearly half of all released prisoners will find themselves back in jail within three years. Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson sees repeat offenses in an area often overlooked: suspended licenses. If you drive drunk or recklessly, you might expect to get your license suspended. But many drivers lose their licenses for unpaid fines. Adkinson calls it a vicious cycle.
“You know the other real tie-in to the criminal justice system that we don’t hear a lot about is driver’s license infractions. If you want to talk about something that you can get into that starts compounding, that you can’t get out of, get behind on your driver’s license,” he said.
To the Legislature’s credit, there are bills moving in the House and Senate to address license suspensions. Yet some say lawmakers are still cowed by the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric. Representative Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami says reform is an uphill battle.
"Not only in terms of money, what it’s going to take to get out of where we are, but they’re also costly because it sucks up the energy, the limited legislative and appropriations energy we have," he said.
Despite what Rodriguez calls ‘prison reform fatigue’, Bob Butterworth says there is support from both sides of the aisle.
“The liberals and conservatives both want this. And it may be for different reasons, but it’s all for the right reasons,” he said.
The paradox of partisan democracy, in action.