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More Prisons, Less Crime (continued)

Over at Crime and Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this intriguing post on the connection between incarceration and crime rates. Expanding on a graph that I presented depicting crime rates vs. incarceration rates from 1978 to 2006, Kent goes one better and shows crime rates vs. prisoners back to 1960. The correlation is striking -- as the nation cut back on prisons, crime rates went up; as the nation invested in prisons, crime rates went down.

More important, Kent lays out the astute point that the number of prisoners per capital is a meaningless statistic. What we really want to know is the number of prisoners per crime -- something that critics of our nation's high incarceration rate have been loath to discuss.

Daniel Chapman (mail):
I don't think the "number of prisoners per crime" statistic is as persuasive as you think... If we made breathing a crime, it'd drop the "prisoners per crime" number to something like %1, but it wouldn't be a very good argument for building more prisons.

Most critics have a problem with the crimes people are being locked up for... namely drugs.
3.10.2008 8:42am
Mike& (mail):
To echo what Daniel Chapman astutely noted: If 3% of the population were comprised of murderers and rapists, do you think that people would be upset if 3% of the population were in prison?

The issue is overcriminalization. Are there too many criminal laws? If so, then the prison population is too high.
3.10.2008 8:52am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Adding to the echos, is there a stacked graph showing what people who are in prison are in for?
3.10.2008 8:58am
akwhitacre (mail):
The argument also does little to address the liberal theory that we're simply locking up the poor. Incarceration per crime committed is a great statistic for proving how well we're enforcing the law, but it doesn't give an indication of whether high incarceration rates are good long-term for the public. For example, it's incredibly expensive to incarcerate someone, more expensive than it is to intervene with support systems that might keep them from committing crimes in the first place.
3.10.2008 9:19am
bellisaurius (mail):
I don't see the relationship that well (on crime and conseq). There's almost a twenty year gap between the start of increased incarceration rates and the fall (actually, even the deceleration) of the crime rate (in violent crimes).

Levitt, from freakonomics talks about the studies on this, and I think it attributes something like 25% (I don;t have the book in front of me, feel free to correct the number). One of the problems that gets talked about is whether the crime rate was dropping first, or whether the incarceration rate did. Looking to just 1960, it's hard to say.
3.10.2008 9:34am
rustonite (mail):
i don't think the notion that more prisoners->less crime tracks well when you break it down state by state- the three highest states for violent crime are (and have been, for a long time) CA, TX, and FL, which are also (and have also been) the states with the highest prisoner populations. it seems more like more crime->more prisoners is the only correlation you can make.
3.10.2008 9:40am
BT:
This is ancedotal but I was watching a tv show on prisons and the warden of a womans prison commented that about 80% of the prisoners at her facility of about 3500 were there for drug related offenses. This was a prison in Calf. Is that true for men as well, or for other women's prisons in other states? I don't know. Also it seems that every guy they drag in from one of those reality cop shows on tv is either on drugs, selling them or in posession of them. I am all for locking up the bad guys, but we really need to take a hard look at the criminalization of drugs IMHO.
3.10.2008 10:34am
BruceM (mail) (www):
"prisoners per capital is a meaningless statistic"

I agree, just because a city is a capital of a state or the country, the number of prisoners incarcerated there seems pretty irrelevant to anything. I'd imagine most prisons are located outside of capital cities to begin with. So "prisoners per capital" is probably the most meaningless statistic ever.

(I know he meant "per capita")
3.10.2008 10:37am
Tracy Johnson (www):
But the number of prisoners per crime is also meaningless. If you take the lay-person's wonder at the number of charges levied at a typical defendant on the evening news.

Look at a typical Assault and Battery charge on a defendant in the 1920s versus today. Today you'd also get the original charge, +this, +that, +the other, and of course it now also may be a hate crime. This historically changes the number of crimes per criminal. And as more laws are added to the books, the options (or requirements) to add more charges to what used to be single crimes increases. (You'd also think it increases the chances for convictions, because if the state fails at one charge, it may succeed at another. Perhaps a statistician should look at THAT.)

The real hat tip should go to the D.A. (or scriptwriter) who invented charging Assault with Battery in the first place. e.g., If Battery succeeded, why is not the Assault charge dropped? If a Murder was successful, do they also add an attempted Murder charge?
3.10.2008 11:07am
PatHMV (mail) (www):
You've got to watch out for the "drug-related crimes" stories that come ultimately from prisoners. To them, and in some researchers' statistics, burglary and even robbery is a "drug-related crime" if it occurred during a drug deal or was committed by an addict to obtain money to buy drugs.

When I worked in a governor's administration a few years ago, some anti-prison folks got passed a new clemency process to review and, the plan was, release all the criminals in Louisiana prisons (and we have the highest incarceration rate in the country) who were, basically, convicted of "non-violent drug crimes." The bill was supported even by the head of the prison system (fewer prisoners would have seriously reduced his budget pressures), who expected to find thousands of people suitable for release.

The process required hearing panels to actually review each file, with the head of corrections or one of his top deputies sitting on the panels, in person. After reviewing quite a few applicants (and only those who were technically qualified), he remarked to me in passing one day: "I had no idea they had to work SO HARD to get into prison." Almost none of the prisoners were first timers in any real sense. Most of those who were convicted of a drug crime also had rap sheets for violent crimes. Many times, they were arrested at the same time for both the violent crime and the drug crime, and the DA dropped the violent crime charge in return for a plea to the drug charge.

There are very few judges out there sentencing folks to prison just because they got busted for a little dope. Our prisons are NOT filled with a bunch of "potheads." To get a substantial prison term for your first offense, you have to do something pretty serious, like burglary or armed robbery, and I've rarely seen people convicted of that who didn't have at least a couple of misdemeanor property or drug crimes on their record before they got to that point.

For those interested, the Department of Justice maintains copious statistics on the prison population. For specific links to their reports, check out the resource bar on the left over at Stubborn Facts.
3.10.2008 11:27am
ChrisIowa (mail):
On the other side of the cost-benefit equation, what would the value of the benefits be? What would be the cost to society of the crimes that were averted had we not locked up the potential perpetrators and how does that compare with the cost of keeping them locked up?
3.10.2008 11:41am
ejo:
I might ask those arguing against incarceration to take their pick-which inmates currently incarcerated do they want out in their neighborhood. not someone else's-their neighborhood. you can say we are "over incarcerating" all you want and pish posh all the statistics but PatMHV is right-you have to work your way into prison. A "possession" offense with a history of multiple felonies will get you locked up.
3.10.2008 11:47am
gattsuru (mail) (www):
the three highest states for violent crime are (and have been, for a long time) CA, TX, and FL, which are also (and have also been) the states with the highest prisoner populations.


What numbers I was able to find seem to disagree with you on CA and TX.

I also expect that looking at the data in vacuum will be rather useless; we're not interested in whether higher prison populations will magically alter pre-existing other causes, but whether larger prison populations are a useful sign once you've adjusted for those other causes.
3.10.2008 11:49am
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Take those graphs that so impress you so much, and compare them to graphs of the high school population over the same time period. When the baby boom was mostly between 15 and 35, crime rates went sky high. As they aged, and the numbers of 15-35 year olds shrank, so did the crime rate.
3.10.2008 12:12pm
Lawrence W-H:
Also, these studies ignore all the crimes that are committed in prison, by prisoners against other prisoners. But those don't matter, do they?
3.10.2008 12:27pm
Patrick Wright (mail):
If there was a link, I was unable to find it. Here is one:

C &C
3.10.2008 12:33pm
agesilaus:
Gattsuru,
I am shocked, shocked to see that CA, TX and FL are so highly placed in the crime statistics. You don't think that it could have something to do with the fact that CA, TX and FL are three of the four states with the largest population do you (ranked 1,2 and 4 respectively)? I suspect NY would be close behind since it is ranked 3rd.

I always shake my head when I hear some liberal on the radio complaining about how shocking it is that Florida is number four in the country, in some statistic, that they are against. Coal burning power plants for example. The radio host is alway aghast at this horrible example. Just another proof that journalists are innumerate.

As for crime, criminals like everyone else enjoy a vacation in the sun so Florida and California are favorate spots for them too.
3.10.2008 12:35pm
Kent Scheidegger (mail) (www):
Although the prisoners/crime ratio did begin to rise gradually off the bottom beginning in the mid-1970s, it remained low throughout the 1980s. The 1990 rate was barely more than half the 1960 rate. Only in the 90s did the prisoners/crime rate rise sharply and reach the old levels.

"The issue is overcriminalization."

Overcriminalization is an issue but not the issue. The notion that our prisons are bursting because we are locking up scads of harmless people who could be released without endangering the public is a myth. That is a topic for another post.

Years ago, the demographic explanation for the big runup in crime followed by the drop was a favorite of academics desperate to find an alternative, any alternative, to the possibility that sentencing matters. Based on this model, they confidently predicted a big surge in the early years of the 2000 decade. Didn't happen. The age composition of the population is a factor, but it is not as large a factor as was claimed, and it is certainly not the sole explanation as some far-out academics claimed.
3.10.2008 12:37pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Just another proof that journalists are innumerate.

Along with you apparently--since the statistics pointed to are crimes per 100,000 population. And NY is in 21st place (which is pretty much in the middle of the pack).
3.10.2008 12:41pm
ejo:
no one will answer the simple question-which prisoners do you want out of prison? that population of first time dope smokers does not exist-who do you want out?
3.10.2008 12:59pm
frankcross (mail):
Kent, I have no doubt your basic bottom line is right, but this needs a little more rigor before you can ascribe quantitative effects.

You need control variables, for demography and various other factors (such as poverty, policing, maybe abortion laws), you can't just compare two lines. Also, you extrapolated your general results to be identical for all crimes (robbery, rape, murder, etc.) That is very implausible. There are surely different changes in imprisonment rate for different crimes, which would influence crime rates.
3.10.2008 1:09pm
Gary McGath (www):
"What we really want to know is the number of prisoners per crime."

That isn't a meaningful statistic either, without asking what the government makes a crime. To know whether the government is incarcerating too many people to no good purpose, we have to ask what percentage of "crimes" are things like drug use, and what percentage of prisoners account for such crimes rather than acts which should be crimes.
3.10.2008 1:12pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
The basic page for incarceration stats is at the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A common statistic you'll see is what the "most serious offense" of conviction was. Many times, an individual is sentenced for 3 or 4 crimes at once, serving his time either concurrently or consecutively depending on the circumstances. In order to prevent double-counting, in this type of research, you look just at the "most serious" offense that a particular prisoner is currently serving time for. Determination of the "most serious offense" is not a simple matter, and the DOJ website does not clearly explaining how it is calculated. I believe it may rely on the entry by the arresting police agency of the "most serious offense."

The classification issues are important. Let's say that someone was arrested for having, say, 100kg of cocaine on them, and also for assault with a deadly weapon. Of those 2 crimes, possession with intent to distribute 100kg of cocaine undoubtedly subjects you to a much larger prison term than an assault. If "most serious offense" is determined based on the most potential prison time, that criminal goes into jail as a "non-violent" drug-offender, despite having a record for violence and despite being in prison right now at least partially because of a crime of violence.

With those caveats firmly in mind, the BJS reports that, of all state and federal prison inmates in 2004, the "most serious offense" was: 52% violent, 21% property, 20% drug, and 7% "public order." Note that the percentage of drug convicts fell from 22% in 1995 to 20% in 2004. Again, the drug offense may well be what the person is in jail for THIS time, but many of those folks have a long rap sheet before they've gotten to this point.
3.10.2008 1:17pm
scosm:
no one will answer the simple question-which prisoners do you want out of prison? that population of first time dope smokers does not exist-who do you want out?

I know of one. He had several prior felony convictions dating back years, but he is in his 50s and has had a lot of tragedy in his life. The most serious felony conviction was a robbery, I think, that was 20+ years old. Under the Rockefeller drug laws in New York, he got 7 to 14 years for buying $20 worth of crack. His trial attorney was so-so. The appellate court was sympathetic to the argument that his sentence was too harsh, but didn't reverse. I don't think he should have never gone to jail in the first place, but certainly for a shorter time and coupled with rehab or similar services.

But to answer your question more generally, it is unfair to place the burden on us to do the parole board's job to determine who shouldn't be in jail in the first place. I'm sure there are thousands and thousands of sympathetic cases like the one I described. They don't fall into discreet categories.
3.10.2008 1:36pm
ejo:
the arguers against incarceration will never pay attention to your attempts to mislead them into believing that 90% of the prison population are not first time, use only drug offenders. it is too near and dear to the heart of the drug lobby to acknowledge the truth-the folks in prison are usually there for a reason and worked hard to get there.
3.10.2008 1:37pm
Sk (mail):
"The process required hearing panels to actually review each file, with the head of corrections or one of his top deputies sitting on the panels, in person. After reviewing quite a few applicants (and only those who were technically qualified), he remarked to me in passing one day: "I had no idea they had to work SO HARD to get into prison.""

Wow..the head of corrections didn't know what kinds of prisoners were in his system?

Sk
3.10.2008 2:27pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Sk... He had never looked closely at individual files before. Certainly he was well aware of basic stats, but like the misleadilngly simple stats we've been already discussing, their basic stats didn't really show the entire picture.

People who run prisons, by necessity, really don't worry much about what the inmates did to get them there. With extremely limited budgets and very low pay for really dangerous and unpleasant jobs, they have to focus intensely on simply monitoring behavior within the prison itself. They conduct an initial placement assessment on intake, to look at risk factors and place in an appropriate level of security (low, medium, high, etc.), but after that your privileges and level of incarceration are determined solely by your behavior in prison.
3.10.2008 2:41pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
scosm... the problem is that you and others like you keep insisting that there simply must be thousands upon thousands upon thousands of hard-luck cases who sort of just happened to wind up in prison, but don't really need to be there. Having looked pretty up close and personal at the system and the people trying to get out of it, I have to tell you that there's simply not. Yes, there are some, but not mass numbers of them, at least not in my experience.

As for tragedy in one's life, yes, most prisoners have had a great deal of tragedy in their lives. Sadly, they themselves often caused much of it. Excusing their criminal behavior because of their personal tragedies is an insult to all the people who experience similar tragedies and choose NOT to commit crimes.
3.10.2008 2:45pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
What percentage of prisoners deserve to be in prison? That's somewhat of a subjective question, but at the end of the day, I think it's what concerns us the most. Let's assume all prisoners are guilty (which is of course a false assumption). Assuming they did what they are charged with and ended up in prison, how many of them actually deserve to be in prison? Does the offender who had 1/2 ounce of marijuana deserve to be in prison? Does the offender who had a pound of marijuana deserve to be in prison? Does the person who stole $25 in groceries to feed his family deserve to be in prison? Does the murderer who administered a lethal dose of a drug to a terminally ill patient, at that patient's request (Kevorian/euthanasia) deserve to be in prison? Does the rapist deserve to be in prison? Some yes, some no. But society at large operates on an assumption that anyone who breaks the law, and thus is a "criminal" should be in prison (the only question is for how long).

And of course, a certain percentage of prisoners are innocent of the charges (though many if not most may be guilty of a lesser offense).

Prison should be a last resort, not a presumption.
3.10.2008 3:10pm
hattio1:
ejo says

no one will answer the simple question-which prisoners do you want out of prison? that population of first time dope smokers does not exist-who do you want out?


I'll start. Those who aren't first time dope smokers (ie. users of almost any drug no matter the number of times if they are only there for use, not connected to violent crime). Those who are there for dealing drugs (again not those connected with a violent crime). Those who are have committed violent crimes long ago in the past. Those who are over 60 (studies show an extremely low rate of recidivism after 60). And of course the innocent. You don't think that with over 3 million people incarcerated we could find thousands, if not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands who fit those categories?
3.10.2008 3:33pm
ejo:
finally an honest answer. I think you should work as hard as you like to change the laws making drug offenses felonies, as that is the only way for you policy positions to work in the real world. can anyone out there keeping track tell me if there is any correlation between numbers of drug offenders/addicts in a given area and the rate of non-drug offenses (property crime/violent crime).
3.10.2008 4:00pm
hattio1:
ejo says;

can anyone out there keeping track tell me if there is any correlation between numbers of drug offenders/addicts in a given area and the rate of non-drug offenses (property crime/violent crime).

Can't cite you to a source, but of course there is. There's also a correlation with the numbers of poor in a given area, and probably with the numbers of minorities. Should we throw people in jail for being poor/minority? Maybe, we should actually make the property crimes and violent crimes illegal....oh wait. Maybe that's why they're called crimes. You think.
3.10.2008 4:23pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
PatHMV,

If the robbery rate would go down significantly with the repeal of prohibition then robbery, at least in part, is a drug related crime.

In fact with the repeal of alcohol prohibition we emptied our prisons. It was one of the selling points for repeal.
3.10.2008 4:26pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Let me add that Mayor Daley (the current) of Chicago said once that crime would drop in Chicago by 85% if the prohibition laws were repealed (that is the gist - not a paraphrase).
3.10.2008 4:30pm
ejo:
we arrest people, hopefully, before they commit crimes. at least that would be the smart thing to do. drunk drivers, after all, are pretty much harmless until they cross a center line and wipe out a family on their way home from church. I hope we wouldn't wait until the deaths to take someone off the road. drug use and dealing are crimes-they are crimes that lead to other crimes given that one needs money to engage in the lifestyle. Why not take them off the street before they get the opportunity to do what comes naturally? it's nice to be so solicitous of the poor but, apparently, that doesn't extend to keeping them from being victimized by others.
3.10.2008 4:53pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Can some one explain why - given the relative crime rates - most first world countries incarcerate at a rate of 1/5th to 1/10th the American rate?

One must also look at the generational effect of the missing fathers. In other words are we trading a short term (relatively) decline for longer term problems?
3.10.2008 5:25pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Schizophrenia and Tobacco

Tobacco is an anti-depressant and a favorite of schizophrenics.

Addiction to tobacco is not too different than the addiction of some to injected insulin.

i.e. is it really an addiction if you need it?

You really need to re-educate yourself re: your beliefs about drugs.

Here is how it works in America. The rich go to a doctor to get drugs with a certain effect. The poor buy from the gypsy drug store.

Class War

Treatment vs Recreation

Round Pegs In Round Holes

Our drug war is really a class war. The rich against the poor.

FWIW I'm a Republican. I know. It goes against the grain.
3.10.2008 5:30pm
ejo:
does the rest of the world have the same criminal underclass that we do? do they import their crime problems from third world countries? we have a lot of self created problems, no doubt about that-releasing more criminals to create more street crime isn't one of them.
3.10.2008 6:23pm
Another Old Navy Chief (mail):
ejo said:

"we arrest people, hopefully, before they commit crimes. at least that would be the smart thing to do..."

No, we don't and shouldn't be arresting people before they commit a crime. After all, someone who has not committed a crime is "INNOCENT" Our system is based on treating people according to their actual behavior, rather than on our perception that they "may" be about to commit a crime.

Of course the very act of planning to commit a crime can be a crime...
3.10.2008 7:12pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle kept track of every homicide in Oakland. The vast majority were a byproduct of drug trafficking in that city. From an article dated 12/28/03:

Even the mayor [current Cal AG Jerry Brown] awakened to a homicide on his street this year.

It's a problem that has plagued every mayor and tarnished Oakland's image.

Oakland's annual homicide rate hovered around 150 for a decade, setting a record with 175 killings when crack cocaine hit its peak in 1992. But that changed in 1996, when the murder rate finally dropped significantly, to 102. When the economy began chugging in 1998, it fell even further, to 81 killings. It stayed in the double digits until last year, when 113 people were murdered in the city -- a 25 percent increase from the year before.

"A lot of these murder victims have criminal histories," Medeiros said. "I'd say 80 percent are criminals who put themselves in spots where dangerous activity happens. About 8-10 people a year have clean records, people who are killed in a carjacking or domestic violence."

The most common denominator in the slayings is drugs, he said.
3.10.2008 7:23pm
kiniyakki (mail):
Hatio1,

First, the people in the categories you name usually don't go to jail anyways - unless there are other factors involved. Second, do you honestly think no drug dealer should be in jail? I'll grant you that maybe some drug dealers shouldn't be in jail, but are you really arguing for a per se rule that no drug dealer should be in jail? What is your response to the above point, would you want that drug dealer living next door to you and your family? Guess I'm just trying to call your bluff and ask if you are serious in your statement.
3.10.2008 7:36pm
hattio1:
ejo says;

drug use and dealing are crimes-they are crimes that lead to other crimes given that one needs money to engage in the lifestyle.


Shocking thought, how 'bout we let market forces determine the price of the drugs. Again, have you seen someone murder, committ robbery, home invasion or prostitution to get cigarettes? No, then maybe the difference is the price of the drugs.

Kiniyakki,
Do I want them living next door? No. But guess what, if you live in a poor area, they already do. Given that, maybe we should make it safer. And the easiest way to do that would be to take the extreme profits out of the system. The way to do that is to legalize.
And the thought that drug users don't do "significant" jail time is just wrong. In my jurisdiction possession of most "hard" drugs is a felony. Second felony is a minimum of 2 years. That may not be significant to you, but I guarantee it is to the person serving it.
3.10.2008 8:12pm
Mac (mail):
Doesn't FL, Calif and Texas all have large numbers of illegals as well as homeless people (because of the mild weather)? I know that these factors, especially the illegal problem has certainly driven up the crime rate in Arizona.

Has anyone studied the illegal problem, particularly, with any degree of certainty (because of many municipalities reluctance to ask citizenship questions)?
3.10.2008 8:47pm
ejo:
drugs aren't exactly expensive now-hence the term "dime bag". unfortunately, addicts with no jobs aren't going to earn income to buy them, no matter how cheap. they then commit crimes to pay for them, further befouling the already bad neighborhoods.
3.11.2008 1:59pm
markm (mail):
ejo: Are you claiming that illegal drug users can't hold jobs? Then please explain why the drug warriors have long been pressuring employers to randomly test their employees?
3.11.2008 8:00pm
hattio1:
ejo,
Dime bags used to cost ten dollars. I know in a lot of places the usage has outlived the price. But more importantly, the cost of one dose isn't that useful for determining how expensive a drug is. How many people could afford to smoke if each cigarette, not each pack, were $10? Lots of people smoke a half pack per day. At $10 that's $100. How many people do you know have an extra $100 per day to burn?
3.11.2008 9:14pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):

>>>"prisoners per capital is a meaningless statistic"




I agree, just because a city is a capital of a state or the country, the number of prisoners incarcerated there seems pretty irrelevant to anything. I'd imagine most prisons are located outside of capital cities to begin with. So "prisoners per capital" is probably the most meaningless statistic ever.


No, what you describe would be "prisoners per capitol". Whereas prisoners per capital (offense) could be a very useful statistic indeed...
3.11.2008 10:29pm