A new analysis from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that states like Idaho, which sharply increased its incarceration rate between 1994 and 2012, had no greater drop in crime than states like New York, which sharply cut its incarceration rate during the same time period. “States that decreased their imprisonment rates cut crime more than states that increased imprisonment,” the Pew Trusts reported.
New York’s incarceration rate fell 24 percent from 1994 to 2012; its crime rate fell 54 percent.
Idaho’s incarceration rate increased 103 percent during that same time period; its crime rate fell 46 percent. Idaho saw the third-highest increase in incarceration rates in the nation during that time, exceeded only by North Dakota and West Virginia. New York had the biggest drop in incarceration rates, and tied with Florida for the biggest drop in crime rates.
“Despite the conventional wisdom, states are showing that it is possible to cut incarceration rates without comprising public safety,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project. The project looked at changes since the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, which led to large increases in imprisonment.
“The crime bill paid billions for new prisons but with nearly 1 in 100 American adults behind bars, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns,” Gelb said. “There’s now broad bipartisan consensus behind alternatives for lower-level offenders that cost less and do a better job cutting recidivism.” That’s been the focus in Idaho’s new Justice Reinvestment Project, which is seeking to remake Idaho’s justice system to reserve prison space for the most dangerous offenders, find better alternatives for the less-dangerous ones, and reduce rampant recidivism, or repeat offense. That project, backed by all three branches of Idaho’s state government, won legislative approval this past year; it’s aimed at heading off the need to build a big new multimillion-dollar state prison in the next five years.
Pew found that the five states with the largest drops in their incarceration rate saw an average 45 percent drop in crime over the time period. The five states with the largest increases in their incarceration rate saw an average 27 percent drop in crime over that same period. Every state except West Virginia saw drops in crime rates; Pew said leading criminal justice experts say factors other than increasing incarceration – including declining demand for crack cocaine, better policing, technological advances, and reductions in lead exposure – likely contributed to the drop in crime. You can see Pew's 50-state comparison here.