As the economy continues to falter, people become desperate, sometimes leading to crime -- but as crime rises, less funds are available to fight it, forcing states and local governments to find less costly ways to punish people. "Crimes of profit have already started to escalate . . . robbery burglary and motor vehicle theft are definitely on the rise," said Jack Levin, a professor of Criminology and Sociology at Northeastern University, in an interview. "Even serious violent crimes like murder and aggravated assault have risen a little bit."
People who are either unemployed or underemployed are turning to crime because they are worried about being able to maintain their lifestyles. But police and prosecutors are facing economic pressure to keep people out of jail by placing them in community-based programs. Moreover, layoffs loom for prosecutors and police departments as governments scramble to close budget deficits. States such as North Carolina are considering shutting prisons. New Jersey and New Mexico recently abolished their death penalty laws for budgetary reasons.
"The irony is that public support for the death penalty is not down at all," said Joshua Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor who is a member of the board of directors of the National District Attorneys Association, in an interview. "Any alternatives are being pushed."
There is little choice.
As USA Today notes, state corrections-related costs have soared from $10.6 billion two decades ago to more than $44 billion last year, according to the paper. Unfortunately, fewer funds are available for crime prevention efforts such as after-school programs, according to Levin.
Some conservatives are worried that the criminal justice system is sacrificing the needs of victims to save money on punishing offenders. Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a public interest group focusing on victims' right, said he was worried about the growing diversion of felons to community-based programs.
"Crime will go up," he said. "There will be more victims . . . Urban crime in big cities are starting to go up, especially among minorities."
States may be faced with added costs rearresting criminals in diversion programs, according to Rushford. Other experts dispute this argument. Though statistics showing the problem are not available, the signs that the economy is stressing the criminal justice system abound.
"Public defender caseloads have never been higher than they are now," Levin said. "Maybe the number of poor and newly poor is rising."