Doing Time, Doing Crime

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The United States has one of the most punitive criminal justice systems in the world, if not the most punitive.  Average prison sentences in the U.S. are more than double those of other Western democracies.  The average time served for a violent offense is 84 months; for a property offense, 41 months: for a drug law violation, 48 months; and for all offenses, 53 months.

Of course, the justification for these extremely long sentences is twofold. First, if we punish criminals severely we should deter them from further criminality because they will want to avoid further punishment. 

Second, even if deterrence does not work, simply getting criminals off the streets ought to make us safer. And we certainly get people off the streets, whether dangerous criminals or not.  Simply put, about 7.3 million of our fellow citizens are under the control of the corrections system. 

One out of every 20 adult males in the U.S. is prison, in jail, on probation or on parole. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is about 10 times higher than any other Western industrial democracy, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Surely this policy of mass incarceration must make us safer. After all, simply locking up a million or so of young males, criminals or not, should drive the crime rate down simply because young males commit about 75% of all serious street crime. But, does it?

The first measure of incarceration as a crime control policy should be recidivism. If punishment works released prisoners should avoid criminal involvement in order to avoid further punishment.  Do they? 

Well, apparently not.  67.5% of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.  That includes 61.7% of violent offenders, 73.8% of property offenders, 66.7% of drug offenders, and 62.2% of public order offenders.  Clearly, incarceration does not reduce future criminal involvement, and it may actually increase it.

The second measure of incarceration as a crime control policy should be the relationship between increases in incarceration and decreases in crime rates.  If incarceration works, crime rates should fall.  In a ten-year study of increases in incarceration and crime rates, the Sentencing Project found an inverse relationship.


Change in Incarceration Rate

Change in Total Crime Rate

Change in Violent Crime Rate

West Virginia




North Dakota




























Source: The Sentencing Project, Diminishing Returns.

The states with the four largest increases in incarceration rates either had the smallest decreases in the crime rate, or the largest increases in the crime rate. 

On the other hand, the states with the smallest increases in their incarceration rates had the greatest decreases in their crime rates. 

More importantly, all the states with large increases in their incarceration rates had the largest increases in the violent crime rate, while the states with smallest increases had the largest decreases in their violent crime rates.

If we looked at international data the numbers would be even more compelling.  The other industrial democracies incarcerate about 900% fewer of their citizens than we do.  They have crime rates about 50% of ours, and violent crime rates about 10% of ours.

These trends should not be surprising. First, prison is little more than a crime school.  Offenders learn from more experienced inmates how to commit crimes and avoid detection.  They are introduced to new types of crime and criminal opportunities.  They meet, interact with, and form criminal partnerships with other criminals.

Also, inmates internalize the norms of the prison’s subculture, which they bring back to the community.  They leave prison smarter (in terms of having the requisite skills to commit crimes), more alienated and angry than when they went in to begin with.

Second, criminals don’t care about deterrence or punishment.  In fact, they rarely even think about it.  Violent criminals are overwhelmingly not rational.  They act in extreme anger or fear; they suffer from a range of personality disorders; and they are often drinking. 

Property criminals don’t think they will get caught.  Professional thieves, in fact, won’t get caught.  Amateur, opportunistic thieves didn’t think out their crimes very well so why would we suppose they would think about the consequences?

But the research tells us that the effects of incarceration are even more considerable than the two issues addressed above.  Mass incarceration is not just failing to prevent crime and deter criminals, but is, in fact, increasing the number of violent crimes that are committed.

The increased use of incarceration enhances the probability of more serious crime in three ways (Allen and Simonsen, 1998; Austin and Irwin, 2001; Clear, 1996; Irwin, 2005; Johnson, 2002):

First, since most crimes occur in groups, when one criminal actor is put in prison another will simply take his place.  In the illegal drug business, when one dealer gets put in prison someone just takes over his territory.

Second, as more people experience prison, the deterrent impact of incarceration declines. 

Third, social factors related to crime (e.g., broken families, inequality, and unemployment) tend to increase in those communities most impacted by high incarceration rates (e.g., inner-city neighborhoods).

The declining utility of incarceration is summed up by recent research.  Looking at data covering a 30-year period, the research finds that after very small initial decreases in crime due to rising imprisonment rates, the “tide has turned” as the connection becomes not just weaker (in a statistical sense) but actually makes things worse.

Gary Potter, PhD

Professor, School of Justice Studies

Eastern Kentucky University



Allen, H. and C. Simonsen. 1998. Corrections in America (8th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Austin, J. and J. Irwin. 2001. It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Clear, T. 1996. Backfire: When incarceration increases crime. Journal of the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Research Consortium, 3, 2 (August): 1-10.

Clear, T. and D. Rose. 1999. When Neighbors Go to Jail: Impact on Attitudes about Formal and Informal Social Control. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

Clear, T. 2002. Addition by subtraction.  In M. Mauer and M. Chesney-Lind. Invisible Punishment.

Irwin. J. 2005. The Warehouse Prison: Disposal of the New Dangerous Class. Los Angeles: Roxbury Press.

Johnson, R. 2002. Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Liedka, R., A. Piehl, and B. Useem. 2006. The crime-control effect of incarceration: Does scale matter?” Criminology and Public Policy 5: 245-276.

Gainsborough, J. and M. Mauer. 2000. Diminishing Returns: Crime and Incarceration in the 1990s. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project.

Rose, D. and T. Clear. 1998. Incarceration, social capital, and crime: Implications for social disorganization theory. Criminology 36 (3): 441-479.

Wilson, W. J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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