We are a nation in fear. “If it bleeds, it leads” runs the old adage about newspaper reporting, and for decades cable tv news covers crime constantly.
Most people have no idea that crime rates remain dramatically lower than they were thirty years ago. See https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/USA/united-states/crime-rate-statistics for a chart showing crime rates since 1990. Even the big jump in crime in 2020 did not bring us close to where we used to be.
If you think we have an enormous problem with crime, then you are willing to do big things to solve it: spend lots of taxpayer money depriving convicted felons of freedom for long sentences. You support that because you think it will keep us safe. Big problems require tough solutions. And you believe that long sentences are necessary to prevent more crime.
What happened when we released many offenders from prison early because of rampant covid infections spreading through prison? Many people predicted high recidivism. They were totally wrong. Almost none of the released people committed crimes, about a tenth of one percent.
What does that tell us? It tells us what we should know to be true: we do not understand human behavior all that well. We all engage in self-defeating but lawful behavior routinely. People make poor choices with health, at work, in their romantic and family relationships. Felons make poor choices most of us would not make. But there is not a simple explanation that explains why they do so. After all, if a person commits crimes regularly, he will get caught. If he is convicted of a felony, his future prospects are harmed dramatically. A combination of moral conscience, shame, and fear of getting caught and consequences probably deter most Americans from committing felonies. That is what most of us, including most judges, think. But we really don’t know why people make the choices they make. Indeed, if we are honest, we know that we do not fully understand our own choices.
And so, we don’t know why people stop committing felonies or commit more. We know that statistically, people with more support from family and better prospects have lower recidivism rates. And we want to believe we can make our country a safer place by “locking up bad guys.” But we need a bit more humility before taking so much taxpayer money to deprive fellow citizens of so many years of freedom. The United States locks up its people at the highest rate in the world— by a lot. Over 600 per 100000 Americans are incarcerated making the US the largest warehouse of locked up people in the world, with about two million of us. We have 25% of the incarcerated people in the world but our population is only 4 % of the world.
We like to say we are the freest country on earth. For millions of Americans, that is simply not true.
Read the article in the Washington Post by Molly Gill, “Thousands were released from prison during covid. The results are shocking”.