Few politicians ever promise to increase crime rates, just as few constituents ever demand greater crime in their neighborhoods. But this anti-crime consensus breaks down when we map out the different policy routes to reducing crime—and the sacrifices each might entail. A marginal drop in the crime rate would be cold comfort if it bankrupted the treasury or stripped citizens of their basic rights, yet such “big picture” trade-offs are often obscured in the heat of a crime bill debate. As sociologists and criminologists, we use an “institutional perspective” to assess such questions about crime and its control. The value of an institutional perspective on crime is its explicit focus on the big picture: the overarching institutional structure of a society and the associated moral order. These macro-level phenomena shape the terrain within which individuals interact, and they generate the social pressures, incentives, and restraints (external and internal) that ultimately determine the prevailing pattern and level of crime in a society. Assuming that the basic institutional arrangements of the developed nations are likely to be sustained for the foreseeable future, we can envision two basic policy approaches to crime: a criminal justice or security state approach and a social welfare approach. The first scenario entails lowering the crime rate by compensating within the criminal justice system for less than desired performance of the socializing institutions of society, particularly the family and educational systems. Policy initiatives under this scenario are directed primarily toward restricting the opportunities for committing crime. The second scenario entails a broadening of the conceptualization of crime-control policy to encompass strategies for reducing criminal motivations, strategies that compensate for the weaknesses of a market economy in promoting and sustaining a viable moral order. We illustrate the first scenario by assessing the benefits and costs of mass incarceration and targeted (“hot spots”) policing in the United States. We take up the second scenario in a discussion of the crime-control prospects of expansive social welfare policies.

Reducing Criminal Opportunities through Criminal Justice

During the 1970s, several criminologists sought to explain the remarkable temporal stability in imprisonment rates in the United States and other nations. They referred to Emile Durkheim’s idea that societies stabilize levels of punishment to maintain social solidarity. No sooner had the “stability of punishment” hypothesis been advanced, than prison populations in the United States began climbing to historically unprecedented levels. Imprisonment rates increased five-fold from the mid-1970s to 2010. So much for stability. A classic statement in the sociology of punishment links the size of the prison population to changes in the labor market. According to this argument, prisons help regulate the supply of labor in capitalist societies. When labor is in short supply and unemployment rates are low, pressures mount to reduce the size of the prison population. When labor markets are slack and unemployment rises, the prison population expands. Research on the labor supply hypothesis has returned mixed results, at best. And how can it account for the era of mass incarceration in the United States, when imprisonment rates quintupled with no apparent connection to oscillating unemployment during the same period?

Photo by mikecogh via Flickr.
Photo by mikecogh via Flickr.

Interpreted broadly, however, the labor supply argument does help to explain the historical relationship between punishment policy and the political economy of the United States. It also illustrates how we typically rely on the criminal justice system to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere in the institutional order. As the economy has undergone structural change, from the rise of the factory system in the nineteenth century to the decline in the demand for unskilled factory labor in the latter part of the twentieth century, the policy and practice of “corrections,” as it is still quaintly called, have adapted. Mass incarceration arose, in part, as a response to the concomitant expansion of the urban underclass in the 1970s and ‘80s. Chronically high levels of joblessness in American inner cities, growing family disruption, and community disorder and decline prompted policymakers to search for substitute means of social control. “In a very real sense,” sociologist Elliott Currie wrote (on page 46 of Reaping What We Sow), “our swollen prison system has functioned as a costly and ineffective alternative to serious efforts to address those enduring social deficits.” Mass incarceration is very costly, but is it ineffective? To understand the impact of imprisonment on crime, it is useful to invoke criminologists’ distinction between criminal motivations and criminal opportunities. Criminal motivations refer to the desire or propensity of individuals to engage in criminal behavior. Criminal opportunities are situational inducements (an unlocked door, an open window, lack of surveillance) and impediments (locks, barriers, guards) that make crime more or less easy to commit. Persons with little or no criminal motivation are unlikely to commit crime regardless of the opportunity to do so. But even highly motivated would-be offenders may refrain from criminal behavior if there aren’t adequate criminal opportunities. In other words, for criminality to give rise to criminal acts, there must be some opportunity to commit crime. Imprisonment is a potent method for suppressing criminal acts by denying incarcerated offenders the opportunity to commit crimes (at least, against the general public).

It is quite reasonable to expect that policies that task the criminal justice system with compensating for poor institutional performance elsewhere would exact a high price in economic, political, and social capital. The United States is a rich nation and can afford to maintain a huge corrections complex, even though mounting corrections expenditures have far outstripped the overall growth in the U.S. economy. But corrections costs are borne primarily by state and local governments, and they have grown at roughly double the rate of state and local outlays for education, health care, and policing over the past 30 years. Each additional dollar spent on prisons, jails, and community corrections is a dollar that states and local areas cannot devote to other pressing needs. Those needs include improvements in education and early childhood interventions that hold some promise for reducing criminal motivations. Each additional dollar spent on prisons, jails, and community corrections is a dollar that states and local areas cannot devote to other pressing needs. As costly as mass incarceration in the United States is in purely economic terms, it also has significant political and social costs. Researchers have only recently begun to analyze them in depth, but they include imprisonment’s destabilizing effects on families and communities, the growing population of permanently disenfranchised ex-prisoners and other convicted felons, and, quite possibly, higher crime rates over the long run. Moreover, the costs of mass incarceration are not spread evenly across the population; they are borne disproportionately by African Americans. Arrest rates for many serious offenses are higher among African Americans than other groups, but only a small part of the growth in incarceration over the past three decades has resulted from a rise in crime. Most of the growth is from changes in sentencing and recommitment policies that are more likely to affect the life chances of African Americans. It should be apparent that simply adding up the economic losses from crime (medical expenses, time lost from work, etc.) and comparing them with the economic costs of imprisonment does not capture the full range of costs associated with either. Nor is it clear how economists’ efforts to fully monetize the costs of crime (that is, to assign a dollar value to all costs, no matter how intangible) can help policymakers and informed citizens make the difficult political and moral tradeoffs inherent in deciding how many people to lock up to lower the crime rate. So, the costs of mass incarceration are high, difficult to control, difficult to measure, and unequally distributed across the population. It is natural to ask whether the costs of any policy equal or exceed the benefits. This question proves very difficult to answer in the case of mass incarceration. For one thing, the magnitude and duration of the effects of imprisonment growth on crime remain uncertain. But more importantly, it is far from clear how we should weigh the benefits of less crime against the escalating costs of mass incarceration. How much are we willing to increase community instability or voter disenfranchisement to avert one additional robbery or burglary (or 10 or 100) through increased incarceration? How much less should we spend on education or healthcare to avert an additional homicide? The costs and (possible) benefits of mass incarceration simply do not share a common metric against which such tradeoffs can be reconciled.

Photo by KOMUnews via Flickr.
Photo by KOMUnews via Flickr.

It is instructive to consider whether many of the purported benefits of mass incarceration can be attained through alternative means. Can we achieve whatever crime reductions are attributable to mass incarceration by instead implementing programs and policies that are less costly to the public purse, affected families and communities (of both offenders and victims), and a democratic polity? Crime policy analysts Steven Durlauf and Daniel Nagin maintain that both imprisonment and crime can be reduced by transferring resources currently devoted to prisons to expanding policing strategies of proven effectiveness. Despite the obstacles associated with moving budget expenditures from one level of government to another, in principle, there is much to recommend such a policy shift. Carefully targeting enforcement strategies to crime “hot spots” has been shown to reduce crime without merely displacing it to other areas. Like incarceration, though, targeted policing simply reduces criminal opportunities. Criminal opportunities, in our view, are best thought of as proximate causes of crime, characteristics of the immediate situation or milieu that trigger or restrain criminal acts. Criminal opportunities are, by their very nature, ephemeral and subject to situational variation; that’s one reason they’re more amenable to policy manipulation, such as the move to targeted patrols and other forms of “smart policing.” But measures directed solely at manipulating criminal opportunities fail to address the moral sources of crime. That does not make crime prevention through opportunity reduction ineffective, at least in the short run, but it does raise questions about its limits and costs.

One important cost involves the scope and penetration of social control entailed in eliminating opportunities for crime. Opportunity reduction often involves restrictions on freedom of movement and other everyday liberties (as anyone who has traveled by air over the past decade can attest). Young minority males who are routinely stopped and questioned by the police pay an especially high price for the benefits of at least some versions of targeted policing. Omnipresent barriers, gates, grates, alarms, cameras, screening and tracking technologies, and security personnel represent the extension of the disciplinary principles and devices of the prison to public life. Policies and practices that reduce opportunities for crime must be part of any comprehensive program of crime control. But they cannot be the only means by which policymakers try to maintain order. For those who prize democratic values and are mindful of the collateral costs of crime-control efforts, this is an important point. By implementing ever more extensive and intrusive controls, a society can likely reduce criminal opportunities even further. But do we really want to live in such a world of sanitized surveillance? There are other ways to control crime that impose fewer collateral costs. Ameliorating the deep-seated structural and cultural sources of criminal motivation may actually prove less invasive to all citizens than seeking to eliminate criminal opportunities through a thousand cuts to individual freedoms and democratic values. Reducing opportunities for crime alone will not control crime, but it may work if it is part of a comprehensive program.

Reducing Criminal Motivations through Social Welfare Policy

If criminal opportunities are proximate causes of crime, criminal motivations and the conditions that stimulate them are closer to ultimate causes: they reside deeper in the social structure and are implicated in a society’s basic institutional patterns. For example, when a class of citizens is subject to grinding poverty, inequality, and inhumane treatment—as is often the case in totalitarian regimes—criminal motivations may rise, even in the absence of criminal opportunities. Broadly understood, crime-control policy must also seek to replenish the moral bases of social order and criminal justice. This will require structural changes that enhance the regulatory capacities of social institutions (such as the strong families and communities that play a central role in determining the crime rate). We believe the most effective and realistic way of producing enduring crime reductions in the developed nations is to reduce the dependence of populations on the performance of the market economy.  It seems likely that the contemporary structure of developed nations’ market economies will remain highly resistant to fundamental change, but market forces need not dominate other social institutions, especially to the degree they do in the United States. The institutional balance of power varies markedly across the developed capitalist societies, and the modern welfare state is a potent counterweight to the market in most of them. The welfare state is part of what economic historian Karl Polanyi called the great “double movement” in the development of modern capitalism; it has prevented the market economy from completely remaking other institutions in its own image. And several studies show that societies in which extensive social welfare policies shield the most vulnerable members of the population from the full brunt of market forces tend to experience lower levels of serious criminal violence than those with less generous and more restrictive policies. The U.S. homicide rate of 4.8 per 100,000, for example, is 4 to 5 times that of social democratic welfare states such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

The promise of the welfare state for crime control is not simply to compensate for the deficiencies of the market economy by providing for the unmet material needs of a population (that is, giving people what they need so that they won’t steal it). Social welfare programs, according to political scientist Bo Rothstein (on page 2 of Just Institutions Matter), “are not just instrumental arrangements; they are also, and in a high degree, expressions of definite moral conceptions.” The morality of the modern welfare state emphasizes equality, fairness, justice, and solidarity. As such, the welfare state would seem the ideal social housing for protection against the material and moral failings of the market economy. If this description of the welfare state strikes the reader as curious, it’s because today’s welfare state has come under attack from, it seems, all sides. Political liberals question the capacity of governments to provide extensive social insurance for citizens in an era of heightened global competition for capital, resources, and markets. Some social observers worry that the welfare state erodes voluntary sources of mutual aid and civic engagement. But the harshest attack comes from the political right, and it goes directly to the moral foundations of the welfare state. From this perspective, the welfare state is inherently unjust because it forcibly transfers wealth from producers to the undeserving; it saps individual initiative by creating a culture of dependency; and it causes more, not less, crime. By the end of the twentieth century, the modern welfare state was on the ideological defensive against such harsh accusations. Even if we were to grant such criticisms, however, any welfare state intrusions on individual rights and liberties must be weighed against the real and expanding intrusions of our current criminal justice approach to reducing criminal opportunities. When cast in this light, welfare state policies to reduce criminal motivation appear more benign than “security state” policies to restrict criminal opportunities. As we have argued, simply manipulating criminal opportunities cannot, by itself, generate sizable and sustained crime reductions. Further, this approach poses risks to individual freedom and other cherished values. The pursuit of a collectively tolerable crime rate instead requires an approach to crime control that is keenly sensitive to the larger institutional dynamics of society. At present, in the immediate aftermath of the most severe recession since the Great Depression, when many developed nations face the prospect of huge cutbacks in government spending, defense of the welfare state assumes a special urgency. We see no better way to limit crime and promote justice in contemporary developed societies than to reign in the excesses of market economies with policies that guarantee a decent standard of living to all citizens and, by their very nature, reinforce a sense of mutual obligation and collective responsibility. That is the historic promise of the welfare state as part of a vital and responsive democratic polity. No other institution on the world stage today is as likely to limit crime and promote justice without sacrificing individual liberties and democratic values.

Recommended Reading

Elliott Currie. 2012. “Reaping What We Sow: The Impact of Economic Justice on Criminal Justice,” in To Build a Better Criminal Justice System: 25 Experts Envision the Next 25 Years of Reform. A compelling argument for combatting crime with policies that reduce poverty and inequality. Steven N. Durlauf and Daniel S. Nagin. 2011. “Imprisonment and Crime: Can Both be Reduced?Criminology & Public Policy. Maintains that both imprisonment and crime can be reduced by transferring resources from the prison system to “hot spots” policing. Steven F. Messner, Richard Rosenfeld, and Susanne Karstedt. 2012. “Social Institutions and Crime,” in Francis T. Cullen and Pamela Wilcox (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Criminological Theory. Develops an “institutional perspective” on crime that links crime rates to the structure, legitimacy, and performance of social institutions. Karl Polanyi. 2001 [1944]. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time.  A classic statement in defense of strong social welfare policies to protect populations from the material and moral failings of capitalism. Richard Rosenfeld and Steven F. Messner. 2010. “The Normal Crime Rate, the Economy, and Mass Incarceration: An Institutional-Anomie Perspective on Crime-Control Policy,” in Hugh D. Barlow and Scott H. Decker (eds.), Criminology and Public Policy: Putting Theory to Work.  Proposes that high imprisonment rates are the price American society pays for the normal functioning of its economic and social institutions. Bo Rothstein. 1998. Just Institutions Matter: The Moral and Political Logic of the Universal Welfare State. Uses Sweden as the primary example to defend the modern welfare state against several contemporary criticisms.

Richard Rosenfeld is in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. He is a former president of the American Society of Criminology and is the curator of crimetrends.com.

Steven F. Messner is in the sociology department at the State University of New York at Albany. He is the author, with Richard Rosenfeld, of the forthcoming book Crime and the Economy.