Doing Justice?

The prison boom in the U.S. has been good to architects, but how much has it helped reduce crime? New estimates vary, Bradford McKee looks at the numbers.

With the popularity of three-strikes laws, mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, and truth-in-sentencing rules guiding the courts, architects who design prisons and jails have had their hands full of work over the past several years. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that the nation spends about $25 billion per year building and operating prisons, about $1.3 billion of which goes toward construction and renovation of prison facilities. The federal prison budget rose by 160 percent between 1990 and 1996, and the country now has about 2 million people behind bars–four times the number it did 20 years ago. Crime rates dropped dramatically, by as much as 8 to 10 percent nationwide in 1999. But are the two phenomena linked? Several new studies by justice experts indicate that the effect of rising incarceration rates on falling crime rates may be moderate to negligible.

In September, the nonprofit Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, released the results of a state-by-state survey suggesting that the states with the highest increases in prisoner population saw the lowest reductions in crime. Twenty states where prisoner populations swelled most (an average 72 percent rise) between 1991 and 1998 experienced a 13 percent drop in crime, whereas the remaining 30 states, where inmate populations rose an average 30 percent, saw crime drop by an average of 17 percent. The findings, said Jenni Gainsborough, a coauthor of the study, “shed serious doubt” on the idea that falling crime rates can be attributed to higher incarceration levels.

Texas, for instance, had the highest jump in prisoner population–144 percent–during the seven years the Sentencing Project studied, while crime in Texas dropped by 35 percent. California’s incarceration rate, however, rose by only 52 percent and that state saw a 36 percent drop in crime. Figures from New York show that its prisoner count went up by only 24 percent, yet its crime dropped by 43 percent.

The most influential factors in the 1990s nationwide crime drop, the Sentencing Project contends, were a strong economy (especially low unemployment), shifts in the drug trade (particularly the wane of crack cocaine use), and innovative policing tactics.

But the estimated cost of preventing one murder in the past decade came to $13.4 million per year and, statistically speaking, meant locking up 670 prisoners, says University of Missouri–St. Louis criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld. His latest study, published in a new book titled The Crime Drop in America (Cambridge), suggests that the recent spike in incarceration rates may be responsible for 25 percent of the drop in the homicide rate.

Yet, criminology specialists differ on the degree to which they believe imprisonment has cut crime. In the same book carrying Rosenfeld’s study, a report by William Spelman, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, concluded much the same, that incarceration gets credit for one-quarter of the recent crime-rate drop. Yet another recent analysis by Anne Piehl, a public policy professor at Harvard University, finds that between 1989 and 1999, only 5 percent of crime reduction could be chalked up to incarceration alone.

Regardless of whether more prisons mean less crime, Rosenfeld maintains, if crime rates continue to fall, architects who design prisons may find themselves with fewer projects. Politicians have had an easy time scaring the public into building more prisons while crime rates were rising. Not only does less crime translate to fewer inmates overtime, but as crimes rates drop, the public may start to look at those expenditures more skeptically, knowing that, ultimately, they bear the costs of building and operating new facilities.

The television ad aired recently in northern Virginia looks predictable enough: It shows traffic-choked roads and earth movers making way for new suburban settlements. A voice warns of the destruction of the region’s idyllic horse country by “runaway” population growth. But it’s not an environmental group making this doomsday appeal–it’s an anti-immigrant outfit called the Coalition for the Future of the American Worker, which is backed by the Federation for American Immigration Reform. But neo-nationalists are not the only ones who have decided that a fear of foreigners feeds handily into antisprawl rhetoric: A faction within the Sierra Club that calls itself Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization is pushing a referendum within the conservation group to make tighter immigration controls an official policy goal.

“Mass immigration is the engine driving the U.S. to double its population next century,” says the maverick Sierrans’ Web site, “and thus needs to be discussed as an active component of Sierra Club population policy.” The conflict has presented a vulnerability on which, with the mother club’s bete noire, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), has pounced. “The vote is being pushed by rank-and-file Sierra Club activists,” not renegades, insists Gary Hambly, president and CEO of the Home Builders Association of Northern California in San Ramon, accusing the Sierra Club of being “connected with anti-immigration groups.”

Last spring, the NAHB estimated that the country will need 15 million new homes over the next decade to meet the demand of new households, and attributed part of the demand to immigrants. Slightly fewer than 1 million people immigrate to the U.S. legally each year. The anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington jumped on NAHB’s statistics nonetheless, claiming that, yes, indeed, mass immigration is one of sprawl’s “root causes.” This may surprise some recent immigrants to suburbia who arrived to find it pretty well established–by all those immigrants who preceded them. B.M.

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