Crime drop not just due to tougher laws

The Justice Department announced last week the prison population is growing while the crime rate is dropping. The report stated the swelling population is partly because of an increase in parole violations and longer sentences for offenders.
One question at the center of the issue, and one which will no doubt rise again in national politics and later influence policy, is whether the increase in prison population can explain the decrease in the crime rate.
Advocates of tougher sentencing laws say the increase in incarcerations accounts for the decline in criminal activity, but the truth is far more complex. Economics, trends in drug use and demographics must also be considered. Comprehensive studies show that many factors are responsible for the decline in crime, and, most importantly, that tougher prison sentences do not necessarily correspond with lower crime rates.
One report, published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, tracked the rise and fall of drug markets during the 1980s and 1990s. The study also asserted that the strong economy and an increase in unskilled jobs have benefited young people who would otherwise seek out illicit employment.
Statements that attribute the lower crime rate purely to tougher sentencing laws are gross simplifications of very complex and varied social forces. The actual correlation between prison populations and the crime rate is difficult to prove because teenagers often face lighter legal consequences for their crimes, and changes in sentencing policy are often reactions to already increasing criminal activity. Even after enacting tough sentencing laws for minors, studies show preventive — rather than reactive — measures produce the best results.
The study concluded that prevention is the most effective technique to combat youth crime, though prison terms might better incapacitate older, violent individuals. Police tactics, such as search and seizures in high-crime neighborhoods, contributed to a decline in violence. Other less aggressive actions contributed to a decrease in violence as well. Community-based campaigns and activities such as sports activities for at-risk youth and gang mediation have had positive results.
The notion that terrible crimes demand terrible punishments may seem logical to some, but it ignores more creative prevention strategies and promising alternative treatment programs. Preliminary government studies show medical treatment for drug addicts reduces recidivism, which should therefore cause a corresponding decrease in violent crime — which accounts for half of all state prison sentences.
The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group in Washington, also claims there is no correlation between crime and incarceration rates. Tougher crime laws have been enacted in response to rising crime rates throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but their effects are disputable.
Determining whether more strict sentences will lower criminal activity is not a simple matter. A myriad of social forces influence criminal activity. Graphs can display the correlation between prison population and the number of crimes committed, but they cannot prove any causation. So far, the evidence indicates preventive measures are the most effective tactic in enforcing the law.