Press Release

New Research Brief Dispels the Idea That More Incarceration Would Address Crime Upticks

Nearly 50 U.S. states have reduced both incarceration rates and crime levels in the last 10 years.

Related to: Incarceration

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, The Sentencing Project released a new research brief, “Incarceration & Crime: A Weak Relationship,” that highlights the limited contribution of mass incarceration to the crime drop that began in  the 1990s. The research brief also shows that 46 U.S. states have been able to reduce both incarceration and crime levels in the past decade, and provides several evidence-based recommendations for increasing public safety without increasing incarceration rates.

“We hope this research brief will help to educate both policymakers and the public about the fact that crime rates and incarceration levels are not closely related,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Co-Director of Research with The Sentencing Project and co-author of the report. “During the 1990s, crime rates increased along with incarceration rates, yet incarceration rates continued to go up when U.S. crime rates started falling. While data may indicate that incarceration has some impact on crime – albeit, very limited – non-prison approaches to community safety that are supported by research should be prioritized. We don’t need to rely on mass incarceration to bring down the recent uptick in crime.”

Incarceration & Crime: A Weak Relationship” shows how more than 24 countries experienced historical crime waves and drops comparable to that of the United States, but most did not expand imprisonment anywhere close to the scale of the United States. The research brief similarly describes how most U.S. states, including states such as Louisiana which are working to undo their recent decarceration, experienced a drop in crime rates in the last 10 years while also scaling back mass incarceration.

“In the last decade or so, most states have started reducing their incarceration levels while also experiencing a reduction in crime levels,” Ghandnoosh said. “We simply don’t need to put so many people behind bars to promote community safety.”

Some evidence-based policies discussed in “Incarceration & Crime: A Weak Relationship” that could address the underlying safety needs of communities include:

  • Reducing unnecessary justice involvement through an investment in expanded substance abuse treatment programs, improved access to harm reduction services, expanded diversion programs, and investments in violence prevention programs.
  • Leveraging non-carceral responses to crime, such as community supervision programs, for individuals who do not pose serious threats to public safety.
  • Eliminating lengthy and extreme sentences with a cap at 20 years of imprisonment with limited exceptions.
  • Permitting a “second look” at lengthy and extreme sentences after 10 years of imprisonment so that sentences reflect the latest knowledge and standards.
  • Eliminating bias through the use of racial impact statements that will help lawmakers evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to their adoption and implementation.

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