Murders rise due to America’s underincarceration problem

Murders rise due to America’s underincarceration problem
Marion Lewis (Image: Police photo)

Progressive reporters often prattle about “mass incarceration,” as if incarceration rates were somehow excessive. But polls show most Americans don’t think prison sentences are too long for violent criminals, and many offenders spend little or no time in jail.

Lawyer Ted Frank calls the failure to jail violent offenders for long “our underincarceration problem.” He notes that “Keith Gibson had 29 felony arrests” and “nine convictions,” yet remained “on the streets at age 39 to murder six more people, including three after he was released for a probation violation.” This previously “convicted killer” had been released by a Delaware judge despite being “the prime suspect in his mother’s murder.” And “Semmie Williams nearly strangled an elderly man to death, but only served 3 years, and was free to walk the streets at the age of 39; he abducted and repeatedly stabbed a 14-year-old boy to death because he was white.” Another “career criminal” was left “free on the streets to massacre at least five in Waukesha.” “Alton Spann had a record of carjacking and armed robbery, yet was free to walk the streets at the age of 21 to murder a UChicago student in Hyde Park just a block from campus.”

In Philadelphia, an “illegal Congolese alien had already racked up multiple convictions, including for sex crimes, but still hadn’t been deported and was walking” the “streets free to rape” a woman on a “Philadelphia train.” In Chicago, Angel Ayala was “still on streets, free to murder an innocent woman,” despite prior convictions for “carjacking,” “aggravated battery,” and being “caught with loaded AR-15 after a shooting.” Another “career criminal, violent, repeatedly fails to show up to court, but” was “released on bail anyway. Rewards society by killing a man.” In Wichita, a “34-year-old career criminal with a dozen felony convictions was out on the streets and free to murder a 13-year-old girl, who died horrifically being dragged by a stolen car.”

As the Manhattan Institute’s Rafael Mangual notes, “The man accused of killing a University of Utah student-athlete has a history of committing violent crimes.”

Thieves and burglars often do little time, even after committing many crimes, and having long prior records of stealing and invading homes. In Chicago, “Lamont Gordon, a 20-time convicted burglar who’s on parole for nine burglaries, is charged with burglarizing a Lakeview business on Christmas Eve.”

Lawyer Bill Otis notes that most Americans don’t think sentences are too long for convicted criminals:

I bring you this poll from the Pew Research Center, a center-left outfit that often does useful research.  The question it asked was whether respondents thought people convicted of crime spend too much, too little, or about the right amount of time in prison.  The results will not come as good news to those campaigning for “decarceration” (and thus, though they refuse to admit it, more grisly episodes like the Waukesha massacre).

In sum, the result is that about 70% of the public thinks convicted criminals spend about the right amount of time in prison (37%) or too little (32%), while just short of three in ten (28%) think sentences are too long.

Among the more interesting results was that a distinct minority of Democrats (41%), and of blacks (40%), think that criminals are incarcerated for too much time.  Clear majorities of those groups think the present level of prison sentences is about right  —  or not enough.

For years, we have heard that America is a shameful “incarceration nation” and that shorter sentences and early release are not only the right thing to do, but are politically popular.  In dramatic fashion, this poll puts the lie to that argument.  When “about right” or “not enough” is beating “too much” by 70% to 30%, there isn’t much room for doubt:  The public overwhelmingly rejects the main staple of criminal justice “reform.”  Indeed, the groups most often said to be its main supporters also, and quite clearly, don’t want it.

Murders have recently skyrocketed in the United States, where prosecutors have recently become softer on crime in many cities. The New York Times reported that “murder rose by almost 30% in 2020,” and is still “rising.” That was “the biggest rise in murder since the start of national record-keeping in 1960, according to data gathered by the F.B.I.” By contrast, the murder rate has been falling in most foreign countries. In 2021, more than a dozen big cities in the United States set all-time records for murder, as homicides surged to an all-time high.

Recently-elected progressive prosecutors such as George Gascón have vowed not to use “sentencing enhancements,” for things such as “past felony convictions.” Prosecutors such as Gascón and San Francisco’s Chesa Boudin have also stopped charging juvenile killers as adults, meaning that 17-year-old serial killers won’t be held beyond age 25. Gascón is dismissing criminal charges against many violent juveniles, giving teens who commit robbery, arson, and sexual battery “restorative justice” (a slap on the wrist) instead.

By reducing incarceration, these new policies will cost innocent lives. Longer prison sentences deter violent crimes and theft. Crime in California fell significantly after California voters adopted Proposition 8, which mandated longer sentences for repeat offenders who kill, rape, and rob others. A National Bureau of Economic Research study found those longer sentences deterred many crimes from being committed. As it observed, three years after Proposition 8 was adopted, crimes punished with enhanced sentences had “fallen roughly 20-40 percent compared to” crimes not covered by enhanced sentences.

Yet prison sentences for murder are effectively shrinking, as more murderers have become eligible for parole due to recent changes in state laws, and rulings by progressive judges. In 2020, Washington, DC’s city government passed legislation that would allow previously-convicted murderers to seek release after 15 years, if they committed their crime before age 25. In 2018, Washington State’s supreme court declared it unconstitutional to give 16 or 17 year old murderers life sentences without the possibility of parole, regardless of how many people they kill. In a 5-to-4 vote, it ruled in favor of a man who had murdered his parents and then drowned his brother in a bathtub.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.” Contact him at


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