What's Behind America's Falling Crime Rate

The murder rate in America is at an all-time low. Will the recession reverse that?

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New York City police officers

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Common sense, you might think. But this is not a popular conclusion among criminologists, according to Conklin. "There is a tendency, perhaps for ideological reasons, not to want to see the connection," he says. Incarceration is to crime what amputation is to gangrene — it can work, but a humane physician would rather find a way to prevent wounds and cure infections before the saw is necessary. Prison is expensive, demoralizing and deadening. "Increased sentencing in some communities has removed entire generations of young men" from some minority communities, says San Francisco police chief George Gascón. "Has that been a factor in lowering crime? I think it probably has. I think it also probably has had a detrimental effect on those communities."

Prisoners leave saddened parents, abandoned mates, fatherless children. Of course, in many cases, those families are better off with their violent relatives behind bars. But a court system that clobbers first-time offenders with mandatory sentences — sometimes for nonviolent crimes — will inevitably lock up thousands of not-so-bad guys alongside the hardened criminals. Not everyone agrees on the definition of a nonviolent criminal, but studies have estimated that as many as one-third of all U.S. prison inmates are in that category, most of them locked up on drug charges.

R. Dwayne Betts may be one of those not-so-bad guys, sentenced to nine years in an adult prison on a first offense at age 16. It's hard to know if a less severe punishment would have worked. Betts hijacked a stranger's car at gunpoint, which is a dangerous and depraved thing to do. But he also showed signs of promise, having earned his high school diploma a year ahead of schedule. Betts gradually learned to navigate the violence and boredom of prison and emerged in 2006 ready to launch a respectable life, enrolling in college, getting married and writing a book called A Question of Freedom. He looks on those prison years as a costly void, "a waste of society's time and money in the sense that I didn't get any rehabilitation or any educational opportunities." Most inmates, Betts continues, can't do what he has done; they don't have the tools. "I was fortunate in that I knew how to read, I liked books, was pretty intelligent, and I knew I had no intention of being locked up for the rest of my life."

With government budgets hammered red by the Great Recession, the high cost and human toll of the lock-'em-up strategy has made it hard to sustain. California lawmakers decided last month to cut the number of state prisoners by 6,500 in the coming year. Other states are already at work, on a smaller scale. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, 20 states reduced their prisoner counts by a total of nearly 10,000 inmates. As a result, according to the Justice Department, the number of state and federal prisoners grew by less than 1% nationwide — the smallest increase in nearly a decade. (The number of blacks behind bars is, in fact, falling as the rate of incarceration among African Americans has dropped nearly 10% from its peak.)

The Data-Processing Factor
In interviews with police chiefs across the country, TIME heard the same story again and again. It is the saga of a revolution in law enforcement, a new way of battling the bad guys, and it begins, at least in some tellings, with a colorful New York City transit cop named Jack Maple. He worked the subways back when the city was averaging four, five, almost six murders a day, and even though the experts informed him that crime was inseparable from such "root causes" as poverty and despair, Maple developed a theory that the key cause was criminals. If police collected and analyzed enough data, they could figure out where the criminals liked to operate and when they tended to be there. Voilà: go there and arrest them, and crime would go down.

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