Lessons from Crime and Punishment in El Salvador

Hans Bader has this post at Liberty Unyielding: “The murder rate has fallen by two thirds since 2018, and crime has fallen by 75%, in El Salvador as it has imprisoned large numbers of criminals. The country has put a hefty 2% of its adult population in prison. This is due to the anti-crime policies of its current president, Nayib Bukele.”

Bader quotes an essay by Edgar Beltrán at Law and 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.

But Beltrán is not a fan of Bukele. Far from it, the title of his essay is El Salvador’s Descent into Tyranny. He describes how Bukele parlayed his popularity from crime fighting into a regime that has run roughshod over the country’s constitution.

Returning to the United States, Bader notes the research indicating that tough-on-crime policies really do work and that the staggeringly high recidivism rates of violent offenders mean that early release inevitably leads to violent crimes that could have been prevented.

So what lesson should we draw about crime and democracy from El Salvador? Protecting people from crime is the number one domestic purpose of government. When a democratic government fails in that essential purpose, people are more likely to turn to autocrats in desperation. To keep democracy healthy, democratic governments must deploy effective law enforcement and punish criminals in proportion to their crimes. Rampant injustice through excessive leniency, as we are seeing in many places in the United States today, is deeply corrosive to society and can ultimately undermine democracy itself.

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