How to Control Crime Without More Incarceration


Crime is one vice that curtails the rate of development in a society. Governments all over the world are therefore constantly seeking ways to prevent or at least reduce the rate of crime in their countries. The US has distinguished itself as the country that excessively employs imprisonment as the choice response to criminal behavior. This has resulted in a record number of inmates serving time in the system. However, the impressive growth in the U.S. prison population during the last 3 decades calls to question the effectiveness of severe punishment in crime deterrence. Sherman et al. (1998) confirm that while some crime prevention programs work, others do not and hence more resources should be dedicated to those programs which have been proven to work. This paper will engage in a critical examination of criminological research and crime prevention policies so as to offer valid suggestions of what the police can do to control crime during this economic climate without resorting to more incarceration.

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Reasons for Seeking New Crime Control Methods

The most desirable function of punishments issued out by the Criminal Justice system is to act as deterrence to would-be criminals and ideally, the mere presence of punishments should cause people to abide by the law. This is the rationale that has been used by policymakers to justify severe punishments such as prolonged sentences and even the death sentence in some states. A number of scholars agree that the current policies which favor incarceration are unfair in that the offenses do not always fit the crime committed and the policies also fail to serve the rehabilitative and re-integrative goals of the Criminal Justice System (Blumstein, 2011; McCaw, 2009; Haney, 2006). For example, the stringent “war on drugs” which was started in the 1980s led to an explosion in the prison population with drug arrests increasing by more than 300% within the last 25 years (Mauer & King, 2007). As it currently stands, drug offenders make up the highest number of prisoners admitted in the system. This group of offenders includes individuals whose sole offense was having small quantities of drugs.

Blumstein (2011) notes that the current financial crises have necessitated a rethinking of previously held policies on crime and punishment. The government has been forced to look for ways to reduce its fiscal deficit and try to restore economic stability in the country (Neyroud, 2011). All states are therefore keen to find means to cut expenditure and therefore resolve the budget crisis caused by the recession. As it is, the criminal justice system is one of the areas where expenditure can be significantly reduced. Reduction in incarceration rates is viewed as a promising area since incarceration has been one of the causes of the rapid growth in criminal justice system expenditures in the past few decades. Prisons are a very costly affair and this expense is shouldered by the taxpayer. As if this were not bad enough, prisons have proven to be ineffective in deterring crime and they also do not result in the rehabilitation of the convicts since a significant number of them end up being repeat offenders.

Incarceration has a number of significant negative outcomes for the individual. To begin with, many employers are reluctant to employ ex-felons due to the fact that this group has a high likelihood of recommitting a crime. This means that the opportunity for a person to find gainful employment and hence contribute to nation-building is greatly diminished once they are incarcerated. Thompson (2004) reveals that ex-convicts are more predisposed to suffering from mental instability than the general information. Research indicates that ex-convicts are four times as likely to be inflicted by mental illnesses compared to people who’ve never been incarcerated. This predisposition to mental illness is blamed on the stress experienced in prison as well as the stigma attached by society to ex-felons. Incarceration also has an especially deleterious outcome for young offenders. MCCarney (2002) reveals that as a result of getting tough on crime philosophy adopted by some governors in the US in the mid-1990s, more juvenile delinquents were sent to the adult system. Findings indicate that these delinquents left jail with a greater propensity towards criminal activities demonstrating that jail trained the youth to become tougher criminals.

Crime Prevention

The need to deter or ideally get rid of crime cannot be overstated. Crime prevention activities have been proposed as an effective way of controlling crime. Sherman et al. (1998) define crime prevention as “any practice shown to result in less crime than would occur without the practice. There are a number of crime control methods that can be implemented without resulting in more incarceration.

It is a commonly held notion that police deter crime and some studies indicate that an increase in police presence following incidents such as terror attacks result in significant declines in criminal activities near the police presence. By increasing the number of patrols, the physical presence of the police is felt by the population. Research by Klick and Alexander (2005) indicated that an increase in police presence by 50% resulted in a statistically and economically significant decrease in the level of crime measuring 15%. The majority of these decreases in crime were in street crimes and automobile theft.

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Electronic Surveillance can have a positive effect on crime reduction. One of the most commonly used public means of surveillance is Closed-circuit television (CCTV). This technology has been especially effective in preventing crime in car parks. Welsh and David (2005) state that findings from a study on CCTV effectiveness showed that the presence of CCTV resulted in an overall reduction in crime by 21%. These findings are supported by Klick and Alexander (2005) who document that an increase in CCTVs in a location is likely to deter street crime. The reason for this impressive reduction is that CCTV assists in deterring would-be criminals from engaging in crime. The realization that they will be electronic evidence that may be used to identify and prosecute an offender keeps most opportunistic criminals from engaging in crime in areas there is surveillance.

Improved street lighting also has a positive effect on crime with the overall reduction in crime being estimated to be over 22% (Welsh & David, 2005). The king of crimes that street lighting help prevents include muggings property crimes, crime in, and crime in city centers. The effectiveness of street lighting in deterring crime is attributed to the fact that good lighting makes it possible to identify criminals. As it is, many criminals are reluctant to engage in crime when they perceive that the chances of being spotted are high.

Some locations are labeled high-crime places due to the heightened levels of criminal activities at those locations. These high-crime places include street corners, car parts, and city centers. Welsh and David (2005) assert that the targeting of police enforcement measures to these high-crime areas can have the desired outcome of reducing crime. These police enforcement measures can include random patrols to the hot spots as well as increased police visibility on such locations. This focused police intervention brings about crime control benefits to the area as criminals will be less active in the areas due to the increased risks of being arrested by enforcement officers. Neyroud (2011) asserts that targeted preventive patrols have a strong deterrent effect which leads to reduced crime in an area.

Considering the fact that drug offenders make up a significant portion of those incarcerated, prevention efforts that target this group can be an effective means of controlling crime. A policy that has been effectively implemented is the offering of treatment as an alternative to incarceration for first-time drug offenders. Blumstein (2011) reveals that this policy has not only saved millions of dollars of incarceration costs but has also led to the rehabilitation of individuals making them productive members of society.

Change in the policing practice can also reduce crime and incarcerations in the country. Neyroud (2011) proposes that improvements be made in the cost-effectiveness of policing with significant attention being given to serious offenders and individuals who are predisposed to serious offending in the future. Neyroud (2011) also argues that police should not be confined to their traditional role as crime fighters. Police have to change from responding to emergencies and critical incidents only and instead seek ways to engage society through community policing efforts.

Crimes are not only committed by the economic disadvantages but also by financially stable people. With this consideration, an effective policy would be to attach financial penalties to crime. McCaw (2009) proposes Asset Forfeiture as an alternative to imprisonment since this form of punishment has numerous advantages. For a start, the state will not have to cater for the cost that would be incurred if the offender were taken to prison. The life of the offender is also not disrupted as would be the case if the offender was sent to prison. As it is, a prison disrupts both the professional and family life of the offender since prison necessitates mandatory separation from normal social life as one serves his time. Using Asset Forfeiture would have a high deterrence factor since people want to maintain control of their possessions. McCaw (2009) goes on to illustrate that this kind of punishment would result in the government benefiting from criminals as opposed to the criminals draining money from the government through the prison system.

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Poverty and social inequality have been noted to be the major causes of criminal activities. Policies that take into consideration these root causes of crime can therefore be effective in crime prevention. Sherman et al. (1998) propose intensive residential training programs for youth in low-income areas who are at risk of becoming a crime. Studies on the effectiveness of such programs indicated that the programs reduced felony arrests and increased earnings and educational attainments for the participants. This demonstrates that addressing the social issues that catalyze crime will result in lower crime levels.


The prosperity of any society is pegged on the maintenance of law and order by the community members. Criminal activities offset this balance and therefore threaten society’s prosperity. Crime prevention is therefore essential for the well-being of the community. There is an agreement by general consensus among researchers that crime prevention should be based on the best possible evidence. With this in mind, it makes sense for the government to rely on evidence-based crime prevention methods instead of relying on the traditional imprisonment methods which are evidently not very effective. Many politicians in the US are apprehensive about adopting crime prevention since they fear being perceived by the electorate as being soft on crime if they back social crime prevention efforts. However, this paper has demonstrated that crime can be significantly reduced without having to resort to incarceration.


This paper set out to articulate various crime prevention policies which can be used to control crime in this economic climate without employing more incarceration. The discussions provided in this paper have demonstrated that it is possible to shift away from incarceration and towards crime preventive measures. By adopting the policies that have been outlined in this paper, the US can cut down on the phenomenal number of inmates it has in its correctional facilities. Preventive measures would therefore be economically sound and they would also result in a safer country due to the significant reduction in crime levels.


Blumstein, A. (2011). Approaches to reducing both imprisonment and crime. Criminology & Public Policy, 10 (1): 23-37.

Klick, J & Alexander, T. (2005). Using terror alert levels to estimate the effect of police on crime. Journal of Law and Economics, 48(1): 1-14.

Mauer, M. & Ryan, K. (2007). A 25-Year Quagmire: The War on Drugs and its Impact on American Society. Washington, D.C: The Sentencing Project.

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McCarney, W. (2002). Restorative justice: International approaches. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 3 (1): 2-13.

McCaw, C.E. (2009). Asset Forfeiture as a Form of Punishment: A Case for Integrating Asset Forfeiture into Criminal Sentencing. American Journal of Criminal Law, 38(2): 54-76.

Neyroud, W.P. (2011). More police, less prison, less crime? From peel to popper. Criminology & Public Policy, 10(1): 77-83.

Sherman, W.L. et al. (1998). Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice.

Thompson, A. C. (2004). Navigating the Hidden Obstacles to Ex-Offender Reentry. Boston College Law Review, 45 (2): 2-12.

Welsh, C.B. & David, P.F. (2005). Evidence-Based Crime Prevention: Conclusions and Directions for a Safer. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal justice, 23(1): 337-354.

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