Originally created 10/04/04

What statistics don't say



A wise man once cautioned that you shouldn't put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say. This should be kept in mind in considering the report by the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute stating that states that have three strikes laws - or in Georgia's case, a two-strikes law - are not reducing crime as much as states without such laws.

The study cites statistics that show violent crimes went down 33 percent in states with three-strikes laws - mandating life in prison without parole for violent crime convictions - and 34.3 percent in states without three strikes. According to the study, since Georgia's "two-strikes" law took effect in 1995, violent crime has dropped 36.6 percent, while violent crime in Alabama, which doesn't have a three-strikes law, has gone down 42.9 percent.

The institute cites other studies it says also indicate that three-strikes laws account for neither more reductions nor improved deterrence of violent crime.

But don't tell that to law-enforcement officers like Richmond County Sheriff Ronnie Strength. Regardless of what statistics might suggest, he counts Georgia's two-strikes law as a definite tool in curbing violent crime.

Why? It's plain common sense. A criminal locked away for life simply can't commit any more crimes. No statistical machinations can change that fact.

Getting back to what the wise man said about being careful about putting one's faith in statistics: There's no causation between three-strikes states and non-three-strikes states, which is to say that just because Alabama's violent crime rate is going down faster than Georgia's, it doesn't mean it's because Alabama doesn't have a three-strikes law and Georgia does.

The difference in the decline of violent-crime rates could be because of any number of factors. Perhaps Alabama's legal definition of violent crimes is different from Georgia's or that the "guilty beyond reasonable doubt" standard is lower there than here. Or maybe Alabama's law-enforcers apprehend more violent criminals, and their prosecutors are more vigorous in prosecuting them. Or maybe Alabama judges and courts are more pro-prosecution than Georgia's.

In any event, comparing statistics between three-strikes states and other states explains nothing and proves nothing.

There's another consideration, too. Statistics can be easily manipulated. Special interests use them, not to inform or illuminate, but to support their point of view.

On its Web site, the Justice Policy Institute proudly states that its research is "dedicated to ending society's reliance on incarcera- tion and promoting effective and just solutions to social problems."

The institute may be nonpartisan and nonprofit, but clearly it has a "social justice" ax to grind. The institute ought to put together some statistics on what law-enforcement officers such as Sheriff Strength think. They're closest to the action, and they certainly don't believe the way to reduce crime is to keep criminals out of prison.

To the contrary, they think prison and the threat of long prison terms is a deterrent to violent crime. With prisons currently overflowing, what's needed most aren't more statistics, but more cell blocks.