Times Still Clueless About Crime Cause and Effect

There they go again: "...but incarceration rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen." Hey, maybe the reason crime rates have fallen is that more criminals are in jail!

Ever since its infamous September 1997 headline, "Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling," (as if the two trends were unrelated) the Times has been willfully naive on the connection between more criminals being in prison and a drop in crime.


Times reporter Fox Butterfield was often the prime suspect behind such goofy stories, and one is tempted to check for Butterfield's fingerprints on Monday's lead editorial, "Prison Nation."


But first, the Times recycled one of its favorite clich├ęs from the Iraq War:


After three decades of explosive growth, the nations' prison population has reached some grim milestones: More than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars. One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34, are serving time, as are 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men.


The editorial made a few reluctant nods to crime prevention reality, but the overall effect indicates the Times has learned nothing about crime control since 1997:


Criminal behavior partly explains the size of the prison population, but incarceration rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen. Any effort to reduce the prison population must consider the blunderbuss impact of get-tough sentencing laws adopted across the United States beginning in the 1970's. Many Americans have come to believe, wrongly, that keeping an outsized chunk of the population locked up is essential for sustaining a historic crime drop since the 1990's.


In fact, the relationship between imprisonment and crime control is murky. Some portion of the decline is attributable to tough sentencing and release policies. But crime is also affected by things like economic trends and employment and drug-abuse rates. States that lagged behind the national average in rising incarceration rates during the 1990's actually experienced a steeper decline in crime rates than states above the national average, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group.