In Chicago, Rethinking the Link Between Crime and Incarceration

A new report shows that a progressive approach, like the one advanced by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, can help decrease jail populations—and crime.

State's Attorney Kim Foxx
Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

In Chicago, Rethinking the Link Between Crime and Incarceration

A new report shows that a progressive approach, like the one advanced by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, can help decrease jail populations—and crime.

Incarceration has long been touted as a necessary deterrent to crime. But across the country, just the opposite is proving true: Progressive prosecutors are successfully reducing incarceration without any corresponding increase in crime rates.

In Chicago, crime is dropping. According to a new report, the number of people sentenced to prison or jail fell by almost 20 percent last year while violent crime also dropped by roughly 8 percent under State’s Attorney Kim Foxx.

Foxx, the top prosecutor in Cook County, Illinois, was elected on a decarceration platform in November 2016. As one of a growing number of progressive prosecutors across the country, she has reformed Chicago’s legal system by overseeing an office in which prosecutors are less likely to seek jail or prison time and more likely to use alternatives to incarceration to ensure public safety. 

The report was released by Reclaim Chicago, The People’s Lobby, and Chicago Appleseed Fund for Justice, local organizations that supported Foxx’s election. They said the findings in Chicago demonstrate how higher incarceration can actually fuel crime rates. 

“The root causes of many crimes, including poverty and lack of mental health services or treatment for substance use disorder, go unaddressed or are made worse through prison sentences,” Rev. David Thornton of The People’s Lobby, said at a press conference. 

According to the report, the number of sentences involving incarceration fell 19 percent in Foxx’s second year in office, from 12,262 people in 2017 to 9,941 in 2018. At the same time, FBI statistics show that violent crimes reported in Chicago were down 8 percent from January through June 2018, as compared with the same time frame in 2017.  

Crime rates in the United States have declined significantly since the early 1990s, but studies show that incarceration has not contributed to that trend. David Roodman, an economist working with the Open Philanthropy Project (a funder of The Appeal), conducted a comprehensive review of research and concluded in a 2017 report that there is as much proof that incarceration increases crime as decreases it. Roodman reviewed tough prosecution policies, like California’s three-strikes law, and found that they produce no significant deterrent effect. 

“The crux of the matter is that tougher sentences hardly deter crime, and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release,” Roodman wrote in a blog post in 2017. 

The pattern holds across the country. According to a 10-year analysis of state imprisonment conducted in 2016 by the Brennan Center for Justice, 27 states decreased both crime and imprisonment.  

Progressive prosecutors like Foxx have proved that alternatives to incarceration exist and are necessary to improve public safety. The Cook County report attributes the drop in incarceration in Chicago to a number of factors, including Foxx’s decisions to raise the threshold for prosecution of retail theft, increase the use of diversion programs, and train prosecutors to avoid a single-minded focus on locking people up. Though Foxx’s approach has drawn criticism, particularly around her decision to dismiss charges against actor Jussie Smollett, advocates say the study proves she’s on the right track.

Ben Russell, director of criminal justice reform at the ACLU of Illinois, praised Foxx’s use of prosecutorial discretion and said her approach should be replicated across the state. 

“We need to focus our limited public safety resources on trying to get at root causes of violence, as opposed to spending lots of those resources churning people through the system for low-level crimes for which we’re not really addressing the root causes,” he told The Appeal. “It’s an approach that’s a smarter and more efficient use of tax dollars to achieve public safety than what we’ve had in the past.” 

Foxx isn’t the only prosecutor successfully working toward decarceration. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner oversaw a 33 percent decline in the city’s jail population from 2016 to 2018, without any corresponding increase in crime. As a result, the city was able to announce plans last year to close its 91-year-old House of Correction jail by 2020. 

As Foxx has focused on decarceration, she has also overseen an increase in transparency that allows for more data analysis. 

Taylor Pendergrass, a senior campaign strategist with the ACLU’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said that data improves transparency, which is instrumental in the effort to reduce prison populations.

“We know that basic transparency, as unsexy as it might sometimes seem, is the bedrock for a lot of these reforms to happen and to be measured,” he told The Appeal. “Not only is substantive decarceration happening, but we can see with some certainty what the actual outcome has been.” 

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