James Taranto's Opinion Journal page features a long-running gag, "Fox Butterfield, Is That You?" It's an homage to former New York Times crime reporter Fox Butterfield, who wrote a September1997 article lamenting tougher sentencing guidelines, even though the U.S. crime rate had fallen five years in a row. The article's now-notorious headline: "Crime Rates are Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling."
Yet the paper's hand-wringing liberal confusion over such an apparent paradox had in fact a straightforward explanation: Crime was down at least partially because more criminals were locked in prison.
Taranto has struck again, pinpointing an editorial in Thursday's Times, "California Leads on Justice Reform," which argued:
In recent polls asking about the most important problems facing the country, crime ranks way at the bottom. That’s because crime is at its lowest levels in decades, even while overstuffed prisons cripple state budgets.
In the next paragraph the Times defensively acknowledged it was opening itself up once again to soft-on-crime mockery among media-savvy conservatives:
A familiar retort is that crime is down precisely because the prisons are full, but that’s simply not true. Multiple studies show that crime has gone down faster in states that have reduced their prison populations.
Butterfield himself undauntedly repeated his "paradox" several times in Times stories, including a February 2004 story that carried a similarly naïve headline, "Despite Drop In Crime, An Increase In Inmates." In it Butterfield referred to "the paradox of a falling crime rate but a rising prison population."
Several examples of the "Butterfield Effect" by various Times reporters and opinion writers have appeared since, including another defensive March 2008 editorial which at least nodded to the tough-on-crime argument, unlike the paper's most recent editorial mocked by Taranto:
Criminal behavior partly explains the size of the prison population, but incarceration rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen. Any effort to reduce the prison population must consider the blunderbuss impact of get-tough sentencing laws adopted across the United States beginning in the 1970's. Many Americans have come to believe, wrongly, that keeping an outsized chunk of the population locked up is essential for sustaining a historic crime drop since the 1990's. In fact, the relationship between imprisonment and crime control is murky. Some portion of the decline is attributable to tough sentencing and release policies.