WMU News

Crime rate drops, but prison overcrowding climbs

Nov. 1, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- For the eighth year in a row, the nation's crime rate has dropped. That's the good news. The bad news is that the incarceration rate continues to soar, with the United States locking up more people per capita than any other Western country, says Dr. Zoann K. Snyder, a WMU associate professor of sociology.

"According to fairly recent crime statistics, if we were to try to build our way out of the overcrowding situation that we have in our prisons, we would have to build approximately three 500-bed prisons per week and create an additional 1,500 new beds each week to keep up with the rate of incarceration," Snyder says. "We're keeping people longer, so we don't have the turnover. Prisons are overcrowded, and there's really not anything there to change the behavior of people."

Snyder says mandatory sentencing laws and requiring prisoners to serve more of their sentences before being eligible for parole both have increased the number of prisoners. Drug addiction has resulted in more crime and incarceration, but other areas also need to be addressed, such as reducing poverty and improving educational opportunity and the quality of life, Snyder says.

The strong U.S. economy has helped keep the crime rate low, but that could change if the economy turns sour.

"With economic prosperity in the past, we've seen a downturn in the crime rate," Snyder says. "But is economic prosperity going to last? Probably not, if you listen to what's been going on in terms of questions with the Federal Reserve and concerns with the various markets. What impact that will have on crime I think will be interesting to see. If the economy takes a downturn, I don't know why we wouldn't have an increase in crime."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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