Crime plunges in El Salvador as criminals are sent to prison

Crime plunges in El Salvador as criminals are sent to prison

The murder rate fell by more than 90% after 2018, and other crime fell by 75%, in El Salvador, after it imprisoned large numbers of criminals. The country put nearly 2% of its adult population in prison. This was due to the anti-crime policies of its current president, Nayib Bukele.

As Edgar Beltran noted at Law & Liberty,

In 2015, El Salvador reached a sky-high 103 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The year before Bukele came to power, it was 51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. Now, it is 17.6, about half the rate of American cities such as Philadelphia or Chicago….Bukele is, by far, the most popular, democratically elected leader in the world. Independent polls have his local approval rating around 80 or 85%. The explanation is relatively simple: El Salvador went from being one of the most violent countries in the world, absolutely dominated by criminal gangs, to reducing crime by 75%. Bukele promised to end crime and he delivered….by putting in jail almost 2% of the adult population of the country.

Since Beltran’s article was published, the murder rate has fallen further in El Salvador, and is now down more than 95% from its peak.

By contrast, the U.S. incarcerates only a fraction of 1% of its adult population. Since El Salvador has a higher incarceration rate than America, claims that the U.S. incarcerates a higher percentage of its people than any other country are outdated. The U.S. also has a lower incarceration rate than Rwanda, Cuba, and Turkmenistan.

For example, Turkmenistan incarcerates about 576 per 100,000 people, compared to the U.S. incarcerating 505 per 100,000 people. Turkmenistan may incarcerate an even higher percentage of its citizens, after one takes into account people who have been informally “disappeared” by state security services, not just those who are officially listed as imprisoned after a trial.

Harsher penalties discourage crime. 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 study found those longer sentences deterred many crimes from being committed. Similarly, a 2008 Santa Clara University study found that longer sentences for three-time offenders led to “significantly faster rates of decline in robbery, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft.”

In addition to deterring crimes by people outside of prison, longer sentences also keep dangerous people locked up so they can’t harm law-abiding people. Killings have increased in Baltimore, where most killings are committed by people who previously were convicted of a serious crime, but who are no longer in jail due to their past lenient sentence.

Shorter sentences also make inmates more likely to reoffend and commit more crimes. As Michael Rushford noted in the Washington Post, “an exhaustive, decade-long study released in June by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, tracking more than 32,000 federal offenders released from prison in 2010, found that offenders released after serving more than 10 years were 29 percent less likely to be arrested for a new crime than those who served shorter sentences. Offenders who served more than five years were 18 percent less likely to be arrested for new crimes compared to a matched group serving shorter sentences.” Similarly, juveniles reoffended more often in New York after juvenile punishments were reduced.

It is sometimes argued that sentences should be reduced because inmates age out of crime. But criminals released from prison are usually arrested again, especially when they are released at a young age. That is illustrated by a report issued in February by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. It found that over an eight-year period, violent offenders returned to crime at a rate of 63.8 percent. The median time to rearrest was 16 months. Most violent offenders released from prison committed more crimes. Even among those offenders over age 60, 25.1 percent of violent offenders were rearrested.

While El Salvador’s President Bukele has successfully fought crime, he is also disturbingly power-hungry. He got his judicial appointees to approve his running for reelection, even though that violates El Salvador’s constitution.

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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