If the U.S hired more police officers, the human, social and economic costs of incarceration would diminish, argue Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani in the American Journal of Law and Equality.
In an essay entitled, “The Injustice of Under-Policing in America,” the authors argue that increasing the ratio of police officers to population would also lead to a decline in homicide and other serious crimes, as well as in officer use of force incidents.
The report focuses on what it calls the “paradox of under-protection and over-policing that has characterized American law enforcement since emancipation.”
“The American criminal legal system is unjust and inefficient,” the authors write. “But, as we argue in this essay, over-policing is not the problem. In fact, the American criminal legal system is characterized by an exceptional kind of under-policing, and a heavy reliance on long prison sentences, compared to other developed nations.”
According to 2019 data, the United States has around 212 police officers for every 100,000 residents, which ranks it in the 41st percentile of today’s developed world. In addition, roughly three Americans are incarcerated per every employed officer, the authors write.
The study’s authors argue lack of officers is a form of under-policing, which stresses the system and leads to longer sentences to compensate for the lack of employed officers.
The study’s authors say they plan to expand on their argument in a forthcoming book, What’s Wrong with Mass Incarceration.
Christopher Lewis is an assistant professor at Harvard Law School. Adaner Usmani is an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University.
They admit their argument is mainly theoretical but say the empirical evidence they provide allows for meaningful discourse in the endless U.S. mass incarceration debate.
But according to the study, American police killed around 1,800 people in 2019. In the rest of the developed world, the average number of police killings is about five per year.
The authors note that advocates of justice reform want to see fewer police on the street.
“(But) It is not at all clear that reducing the number of police officers…would reduce the pervasiveness of police violence and abuse,” the study’s authors say.
“And it suggests to us, again, that the obstacles to police reform run deep.”
In addition to having fewer officers, the report finds that only four percent of a typical U.S. police department’s time is devoted to handling violent crime. The U.S also has a far lower homicide clearance rate than the rest of the developed world.
The report says the high prisoner-to-police ratio and the low level of police officers per homicide, which is the crime the report focused most on, suggest that the U.S. fails to control and deter crime adequately.
If the U.S. shifted resources away from incarceration and into policing to match the prevailing ratios in the developed world, the U.S. would have to endure a dramatic shift.
According to the report, by following the model of developed nations, the U.S. would have about 370,000 prisoners and 1.1 million police officers.
In other words, the U.S would have added around half a million more officers and have 1.9 million fewer people incarcerated.
The authors say their suggestion is more feasible than many reforms activists offer.
“In the highly unequal, oligarchic America in which we live at present, calls to reallocate a fixed pool of revenue will meet with less powerful opposition than calls to tax the rich,” the authors say.
Additional Reading: “Under-policed and Over-Imprisoned,” The National Review, Aug. 17, 2022
Download the full paper here
James Van Bramer is an associate editor of The Crime Report.