Skip to main content
Publications

Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship

January 01, 2005
Ryan King, Marc Mauer, and Malcolm Young
This briefing paper provides an aid to policymakers and the public by reviewing what is known about the effects of incarceration on crime.

Over the past thirty years the United States has experienced an unprecedented rise in the use of incarceration, with the number of people in prisons and jails increasing from 330,000 in 1972 to 2.1 million today.

This trend is in sharp contrast to that of the preceding fifty years, during which time there was a gradual increase in the use of incarceration that was commensurate with growth in the general population. Between 1920 and 1970 the overall population nearly doubled, while the number of people in prison increased at just a slightly higher pace. However, between 1970 and 2000, while the general population rose by less than 40%, the number of people in prison and jail rose by more than 500%. Potential explanations for this dramatic change in policy have included changing crime rates, politics, demographics, and cultural shifts.

The relationship between incarceration and crime is complex. Researchers have struggled to quantify accurately the degree to which crime reduction is attributable to imprisonment. Among the many challenges associated with the issue are the following: distinguishing between state and national trends; differing measures of crime and victimization; and, assessing various time frames for analysis. In addition to incarceration, studies have identified a range of factors which may affect crime, including general economic trends, employment rates, age, demographics, rates of drug abuse, and geographic variation. This briefing paper provides an aid to policymakers and the public by reviewing what is known about the effects of incarceration on crime.

To read the briefing paper, download the PDF below.

 
Related Posts
publications
May 21, 2018

The Sentencing Project responds to First Step Act Legislation

Without provisions in the FIRST STEP Act to reduce the excessive sentencing produced by mandatory minimums for drug offenses, overcrowding will persist and thereby divert resources from programs to reduce recidivism.
publications
June 25, 2018

Letter to Senate on Advancing Sentencing Reform legislation

The Sentencing Project urges the Senate to move quickly to pass sentencing reform legislation, like the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 1917) sponsored by Senators Charles Grassley and Richard Durbin, to help create a safer, more equitable and fairer prison system.