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Despite declining crime rates in the United States during the past decade, record numbers of law-breakers are now in jail, on probation or on parole. The contrast raises a basic question -- if criminals aren't in short supply, why is crime dropping?

While experts hesitate to credit any single cause for the drop in crime, the link between crime and punishment is an obvious factor. As a recent American Enterprise Institute study by Charles Murray noted, the number of criminals has indeed gone up -- but more of them are behind bars or under some sort of community supervision that inhibits their chances of committing more crimes.

The numbers in a recently released Justice Department statistical report are stunning: One in every 34 adults in America is imprisoned, on probation or on parole. That's 5.9 million offenders, up 163,800 from last year and a continuation of what Thomas Bonczar, the author of the report, calls "a steady increase since 1990."

At the end of last year there were a record 1.82 million incarcerated Americans, including more than 1.2 million in prisons and 584,372 in local jails. Adults under community supervision -- people sentenced to probation or released on parole after serving some jail time -- topped 4 million for the first time.

Strong and obvious arguments have been made that such punishment, and especially the removal of wrong-doers through tougher sentencing laws that put them behind bars, is responsible for the drop in crime that is making American towns and cities safer places. If the price of such safety is bulging prisons and extensive use of criminal supervision programs, it's worth paying.

But that doesn't mean Americans should take pride in the fact that 3 percent of the population has been caught breaking the laws, or that improvements shouldn't be sought. There is a small but intriguing push in some locales toward "restorative justice" that blends traditional punishment with sentences that allow offenders to make up for the damages done to their victims -- and to see the human effects of their crimes in the process. And reforms are certainly needed in drug laws, which account for nearly a quarter of the probation sentences nationwide.

Nor does it mean that incarceration is the only reason for the drop in crime. The dwindling crack-cocaine epidemic and better policing also factor into that decline. So does the improved national economy and its provision of greater job opportunities, although Western New York hasn't shared in that prosperity.

Less likely is the recent theory that as much as half of the drop in crime can be attributed to the 1973 liberalization of abortion in America, because the 1.5 million abortions each year terminate a number of lives that would have been at high risk of criminal involvement -- minorities and the impoverished. That argument is flawed as well as distasteful; crime may have started dropping here when the "criminal unborn" would have started turning 17, but in Britain crime rates went up two decades after liberalized abortion.

Whatever the causes, America's declining crime rates are welcome even if its burgeoning prison population is not. The snapshot provided by the Justice Department's statistical study is far from flattering, but the deprivations suffered by those who commit crimes deserve far less sympathy than the pain or the losses suffered by crime victims.

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