“No Evidence” Higher Incarceration Rates Reduce Fears of Crime

May 3, 2022

A population that perceives itself at the top of the pile soon becomes fearful, runs one theory, because the only direction to go is down. Amid persisting notions of American exceptionalism, we have, since at least the 1980s, become an increasingly fearful nation.

So fearful, in fact, that Chapman University has an academic center dedicated to studying fear in the United States, which conducts an annual survey. That survey shows that large percentages of Americans are afraid, or very afraid, of a lot of things. Pandemics, serious illness and pollution all appear in the top 10. But some fears may be inflated by public portrayals.

Fear of crime is a go-to for politicians seeking votes.

Over 40 percent of Americans reported fear of the Proud Boys last year, for example. Odious as that high-profile group is (and reportedly increasing in membership, unlike other hate groups), few of those 40 percent will directly encounter it. Nearly 50 percent of Americans report fear of terrorism, even though the vast majority of such killings—which are everywhere dwarfed by deaths from many other causes—occur in Asia and Africa. And more Americans fear sexual assault by a stranger than by someone they know, despite the latter being far more common.

Each of those fears, of course, involves crime. And fear of crime is a go-to for politicians seeking votes.

As violent crime has increased in recent years—though nowhere close to historically high 1990s rates—the politics of crime-related fear are back in a big way. For Republicans, “toughness” without results is a party-line stance: Despite the popularity of legalizing cannabis, a mere three House Republicans voted yes to a legalization bill last month. However, many top Democrats have also eschewed stated commitments to decarceration from party leaders, with mayors in New York City and San Francisco recently rattling their sabers in favor of police and the prison-industrial complex.

A new study from Penn State doctoral candidate Andrea Corradi and Professor Eric P. Baumer, published in the most recent issue of Justice Quarterly, provides new academic evidence to support what criminal justice reform activists know all too well. The researchers sought to answer “whether there is a significant inverse association between state/county cumulative imprisonment rates and individual fear,” and “whether any such association arises because cumulative imprisonment rates are associated with reduced crime, which in turn translates into less fear.”

“Those from areas that imposed prison sentences much more frequently were no less afraid.”

Corradi and Baumer ultimately found—while acknowledging limitations based on people’s limited awareness of jurisdictions’ relative incarceration rates—“no evidence that persons from states or counties with extremely high cumulative imprisonment rates during the preceding ten years exhibit significantly less fear, either directly or by affecting larger crime reductions or lower crime rates.”

In other words, they wrote, “those from areas that imposed prison sentences much more frequently were no less afraid than those from areas that imposed prison sentences relatively infrequently.”

Their focus on the county level is perhaps most interesting, as writers and scholars have drawn much more attention in recent years to how much control local officials—and above all, elected local prosecutors—have over incarceration rates. Using the exact same state criminal code, and without any correlation for crime rates, elected prosecutors in any given state oversee vastly different outcomes based on little more than ideology or politics.

In Florida, to take one example, Gilchrist County has the lowest cumulative violent crime rate from 2016 to 2019. Yet 769 per 100,000 people from Gilchrist County were incarcerated in 2020. Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County, which has nearly double the violent crime rate per capita, has an incarceration rate less than half that of Gilchrist County. Miami-Dade County is relatively liberal and is served by a single elected State Attorney, Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a conservative Democrat. Gilchrist County is conservative politically, as is State Attorney Brian Kramer, the Republican in charge of prosecutions there and in five other counties.

The authors of the current study acknowledged that mass incarceration has been marketed as a solution for crime fears “among whites and those from the working/middle class.” Here, too, the Florida example is compelling. Non-Hispanic white people make up a supermajority of the population in Gilchrist County, whereas Miami-Dade County is much more racially diverse. Miami-Dade County is also much wealthier, with a per capita income nearly $20,000 higher than that of Gilchrist County.

“If anything, the rhetoric constantly telling them that they were unsafe to justify these policies has kept them feeling so.”

“For decades, fear of crime was used to justify punitive policies that had innumerable impacts on millions of individuals,” Corradi told Filter in an email. “That rhetoric was prominent federally, and translated into local politics as well, until it became inescapable for many elected officials.”

“What this study demonstrates is that local policies attempting to lock up individuals perceived as dangerous did not make Americans feel safe, and there was no empirical foundation for these expensive policies,” she continued. “If anything, the rhetoric constantly telling them that they were unsafe to justify these policies has kept them feeling so. Elected officials, especially in the criminal justice system, should consider whether their response to fear of crime is actually helping to assuage it, or only driving it further.”



Photograph by ИльяБантос via Pixabay

Rory Fleming

Rory is the founding attorney of Fleming Law LLC, an immigration law boutique in Philadelphia. He has worked for a variety of criminal justice and harm reduction nonprofits, including Law Enforcement Action Partnership and Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project, and provided campaign services for over a dozen district attorney campaigns. His articles have appeared in the Atlantic, Slate and many other outlets.

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