In 1973, I was a first-year PhD student in what is now Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College. At that time, crime rates were rising steeply just as the baby boomers were reaching the prime crime-committing age: 15 to 25. In a serendipitous encounter with Al Blumstein, a future Heinz dean, I asked how long this demographic bulge would affect crime rates. Al said he didn’t know, but, in the best tradition of CMU, he said we should try to find out ourselves. That encounter changed my academic career. I had thought I was going to work on health policy. Instead, ever since, I’ve been working on questions related to crime, violence, and criminal-justice policy.
The deterrent effect of criminal penalties was the subject of my dissertation, which served as a prime impetus for a 1978 National Academy of Sciences report, “Deterrence and Incapacitation: Estimating the Effects of Criminal Sanctions on Crime Rates.” Al chaired the committee that produced that report, and Jackie Cohen (HNZ’82, emeritus research professor) and I were the committee’s principal staff members. Thirty years later, I chaired another Academy committee that authored the 2012 report “Deterrence and the Death Penalty.”
Today, the number of people incarcerated in the United States is about 1% of the adult population, a five-fold increase in 30 years. Until recently, this wasn’t widely known; more importantly, it wasn’t an issue of concern to policy makers. The Great Recession has changed that. Governors and state legislators were confronted with the politically unappetizing expedient of having to cut educational and social services even as they had to hold the line on or even increase corrections budgets.
In an address on federal criminal-justice policy, Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated: “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law-enforcement reason.”
Most significant about his address was his blunt pronouncement that prison sentences are too long. Holder’s acknowledgement applies with equal force to the states.
During the past five years, I’ve been reviewing the evidence on what is known about the crime-prevention effect of criminal penalties and considering the implications of the conclusions for criminal-justice policy. My conclusions match those of Attorney General Holder. There is no good evidence that lengthy prison sentences are an effective deterrent to crime.
Imprisonment may reduce crime by incapacitation, but the long sentences imposed consequently create an aging prison population. Research shows that age is nature’s most effective curative to crime; reoffending rates of older prisoners are 40% lower than those of younger prisoners. From a crime-control perspective, reliance on severe penalties for reducing crime isn’t necessary. It’s also the source of injustices in which persons convicted of nonviolent crimes, particularly drug crimes, receive far lengthier sentences than persons convicted of violent crimes.
The bottom line of my evidentiary reviews is that U.S. crime policy must roll back its addiction to using increases in sentence severity as a response to every new crime problem. This is a politically and morally difficult Rubicon to enter, but if it’s not entered, U.S. prisons will inexorably become old-age homes rather than effective institutions of crime control.
—Daniel S. Nagin (TPR’71, HNZ’76)
Daniel Nagin has been awarded the 2014 Stockholm Prize in Criminology for his work in helping to reshape the use of prison and community corrections based on evidence of what works — and what doesn’t. The international prize is awarded annually for outstanding achievements in criminological research or for the application of research results by practitioners for the reduction of crime and the advancement of human rights. Nagin is the Teresa and H. John Heinz III University Professor of Public Policy and Statistics.