Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and West Virginia were the only four states in the country to experience both increases in crime and incarceration rates from 2000 to 2015, according to a July research brief from the Vera Institute for Justice.

The title of the brief says it all: “The Prison Paradox: More Incarceration Will Not Make Us Safer.” The Vera authors make four points:


*Increases in incarceration rates have a small impact on crime rates and each additional increase in incarceration rates has a smaller impact on crime rates than previous increases.

*Any crime reduction benefits of incarceration are limited to property crime. Research consistently shows that higher incarceration rates are not associated with lower violent crime rates.

*Incarceration may increase crime in certain circumstances. In states with high incarceration rates and neighborhoods with concentrated incarceration, the increased use of incarceration may be associated with increased crime.

*Incarceration is expensive. The United States is spending heavily on jails and prisons and under-investing in less expensive, more effective ways to reduce and prevent

Aging populations, increased employment, increased graduation rates, increased law enforcement personnel and changes in police strategies collectively contributed to lower crime rates across the country, research shows, according to the Vera authors.

Meanwhile, the more people states incarcerate, the less impact it has on the violent crime rate. “This is because individuals convicted of serious or repeat offenses receive prison sentences even when overall rates of incarceration are low,” the Vera authors write. “To continue to increase incarceration rates requires that prisons be used for individuals convicted of lower-level or infrequent offenses as well.”


That’s Arkansas’s experience of course. Our prison population exploded in the wake of Darrell Dennis, a black serial parole absconder who was convicted of the 2013 murder of Forrest Abrams, a white teenager. The Board of Corrections dramatically tightened parole policies, which flooded prisons with parole violators. Those policies were later relaxed, though Arkansas has been among the states with the fastest growing prison populations ever since. To try to fix that, the legislature passed a criminal reform bill earlier this year that sends parole violators who violate the terms of their supervision or commit nonviolent, nonsexual misdemeanors to a Community Correction facility for 45-90 days, instead of to prison.

As Jacob Rosenberg wrote recently, cracking down on parole has become a popular talking point in the wake of the Power Ultra Lounge mass shooting. It’s a reminder that any criminal justice reforms are fragile.


But as the Vera brief’s authors (and many others) argue, there can be an incarceration tipping point in communities. “[H]igh rates of imprisonment break down the social and family bonds that guide individuals away from crime, remove adults who would otherwise nurture children, deprive communities of income, reduce future income potential, and engender a deep resentment toward the legal system; thus, as high incarceration becomes concentrated in certain neighborhoods, any potential public safety benefits are outweighed by the disruption to families and social groups that would help keep crime rates low.”