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December 9, 2009

The latest (encouraging?) official data on incarceration nation

As reported in this AP piece, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has released its official tally of incarceration numbers. Here is an effective summary of what the new data show:

The U.S. prison population edged up slightly last year, though the number of total inmates dropped in 20 states, including New York, Georgia and Michigan.

Justice Department figures released Tuesday show the overall state and federal prison population stands at a record 1.6 million and is still rising, but the rate of growth is slowing as state authorities look for cheaper ways to mete out justice. If you add in those people in jails — where some are held while they await trial — the total number of people behind bars comes to 2.3 million....

The statistics are the latest evidence that the rapid growth of prisons seen in the 1990s has cooled significantly in this decade. The prison population grew less than 1 percent last year. The previous decade saw the inmate population grow by an annual average of more than 6 percent.

Ram Cnaan, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice, said the slowing trend shows politicians are confronting a painful truth about prisons. "They simply cost too much," said Cnaan. "If you can prevent opening a new prison, you can save lots of money."

Both liberals and conservatives are increasingly searching for alternative sentencing programs, like treatment or monitoring, he said. "It's not ideological, it's pragmatic," said Cnaan. "This is the first time that we have alliances on the right and left on this issue, and it's the money that has forced the issue."

The states with the largest increases in prison population were Pennsylvania, Florida and Arizona, whose one-year increases were all greater than the federal prison system, which grew by 1,662 inmates. Of the three states that lost the most prisoners in 2008, New York shed 2,273, Georgia 1,537 and Michigan 1,495.

Prisoners in 2008 is the official title of the new BJS publication, and it can be accessed at this link.

December 9, 2009 at 09:02 AM | Permalink


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It's astonishing, and intellectually dishonest, to talk about the incarceration rate as if it were a free-standing phenomenon that landed here from Jupiter.

THE INCARCERATION RATE IS LINKED TO THE CRIME RATE. When you take criminals off the street, you get less crime. The figures overwhelmingly establish this common sense truth, as even Eric Holder admits.

Over the past 15 years or so, we have taken more and more criminals off the street (the article is right about that, at least), and we have gotten less and less crime (which the article entirely fails to mention). And, naturally, with more of the people who commit crime behind bars, the crime rate has slowed. Since the crime rate has slowed, the incarceration rate has now also started to slow. This is not all that hard to figure out.

That is what is actually going on. It's true that cost consciousness is also in the mix, but the answer to that is not to de-incarcerate and thus drive the crime rate back up. The answer is to fix what's really causing the money crunch, to wit, the mind-boggling growth in entitlement and social welfare spending.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2009 9:34:12 AM

But Bill, how do you explain the important fact that New York has had crime rates drop MORE than other states even though its incarceration rate has gone down? When you dig into the number in a serious way, your simplistic explanations start to break down....

Posted by: Doug B. | Dec 9, 2009 9:49:58 AM

Doug --

When you focus on one anomaly and set aside the big picture, you can prove anything.

How do you explain the other 49?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2009 10:17:13 AM

Perhaps the New York exception is the cumulative effect of strict application of "broken windows" policing which has put criminals on notice that the police will not look the other way when hoods try to make the public way their personal playground.

Posted by: mjs | Dec 9, 2009 11:20:03 AM

Fine, Bill, let's talk about Texas - our incarceration rate declined more than anyone's except Massachussetts (we were tied), but a lower incarceration rate (with a growing state population) hasn't stopped crime from declining as much or more as states where the rate increased.

Incarceration rates are only loosely tied to crime, and crime rates tend to go up and down independently of that metric. To the extent there's a connection at the macro level, there's a massive time lag and the relationship is at best indirect. At any given moment incarceration rates are much more tied to capacity: If you build it, they will come. Don't build it, and states begin to use parole or probation to supervise less dangerous offenders for much, much less money, which is what you see in these data.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 9, 2009 11:23:44 AM

Grits --

1. Your first paragraph significantly undermines your second. In your first, you say that in Texas, the crime rate fell as incarceration fell. In your second, you say that there is at best an indirect and time-lagged relationship between crime rates and incarceration -- leading me to wonder how much the assertions in your first paragraph prove, or are even claimed to prove.

2. There may well be a relationship between prison capacity and the crime rate, as you maintain in your second paragraph. But you have the causation backward. Prison construction catches up with crime, not vise versa. The notion that the taxpayers spend money on prisons because they can't think of anything better to do with it is incorrect.

3. In this instance, it's not going to work to by-pass the forest in favor of a microscopic examination of one tree (Texas) or another (New York). The nationwide date overwhelmingly establish that, as you put more people who commit crime in jail, you get less crime. That these are the actual overall results is hardly surprising, as common sense will tell you the same thing.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2009 12:27:13 PM

mjs --

I was thinking the same thing, to wit, that there could well be some circumstance specific to New York that would account for its outlier status. I just don't know the on-the-ground facts in New York well enough to say.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2009 12:30:19 PM

Several years ago I plotted crime rate versus time (1983 to present) for individual states and found there were large lags between states that depended on the type of crime. The nation average crime rate was dominated (as one would expect) by the states with high crime rates. I then plotted crime and incarceration rates versus time for individual states and found that in general the incarceration rate lagged the crime rate by amounts that depended on the type of crime. As a consequence I am very skeptical of any conclusions based on combined federal and state prison populations and the national average crime rate (whatever that means).

Posted by: John Neff | Dec 9, 2009 1:02:49 PM

Bill. I certainly agree with with you are saying. At the same time, it's also intellectually dishonest to assert (or even imply) that incarceration is the *only* way to reduce crime.

So when Doug and Grits bring up their points I don't think their intention is to say, "lets free all the crooks". I think their intention is to say, "it's not so simple". And I agree with that. It's not so simple.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 9, 2009 1:36:08 PM

It is that simple. If the person is off the street, there can only be less street crime. It is the person. The crime is a metonymy for the character. The character is the cause of crime. Booker has yet to affect incapacitation rates, so the crime rate has not shifted. Yet. The criminal lover lawyer on the bench is working very hard to change that.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 9, 2009 4:12:27 PM

John Neff: What was the correlation between the state crime rates and the state fraction of minorities? Minorities do not have higher rates of criminality. They have high rates of less police and criminal law protections.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 9, 2009 4:16:04 PM

Each conviction stands in for 100 other crimes immunized by the lawyer. To not incarcerate after getting the conviction is to allow 100's of crimes a year. That is why the lawyer profession is in utter failure. The prison is itself a form of rent seeking, when dispatching the repeat violent offender would settle the nation down.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 9, 2009 4:25:33 PM

Daniel --

I didn't state or imply, and I don't believe, that incarceration is the only way to reduce crime. For serial killers, the DP is probably better. For people who actually are low-level, first-time, non-violent offenders, I see nothing wrong with probation and/or fines, on a case-by-case basis.

There is one thing that IS simple, and that is that the overall national data overwhelmingly show that the more you incarcetrate people who commit crime, the less crime gets committed.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 9, 2009 5:11:07 PM


A very large fraction of the crime is local so the percentage of minorities by state is not a very useful factor. In my state a very high percentage of the prison inmates (of all races) come from low income hotspots that are at least 30% Black.

The probability of incarceration can depend on a large number of factors but in practice the factors that are most likely to be known are age, gender, recidivism and race/ethnicity. It appears to me that age and recidivism are the most important of the known factors but I think you have a strong case that Blacks that are recidivists do not receive equal protection. What data I have suggests that educated middle class Blacks have incarceration probabilities that are similar to Whites and Hispanics.

The sibling factor makes it very difficult to understand genetic, environmental and social factors because it is possible for a prison inmate to have one or more siblings with the same factors who have not done crime and are unlikely to do crime in the future.

Posted by: John Neff | Dec 9, 2009 5:13:46 PM

Bill, no one would argue that, broadly speaking, the more people in prison the less crime we have, at least on average. But that's not the real question. The real question is: is the marginal cost of incarceration offender 1,600,001 worth whatever crime-reducing benefits we get from it. And keep in mind that the marginal cost isn't just the cost of incarceration, but a host of collateral costs as well (reduced lifetime earnings, disrupted familial ties, weakened community-level support systems); and the marginal benefits are not just the crimes the offender does not commit while incarcerated, but a similarly confounding host of collateral benefits (to the victim's sense of "justice" or social status, community-level externalities, and so on). It's a profoundly complex question, but I think you'd find a general agreement among most students of crime and punishment that, on the margin, offender 1,600,001 costs us more than we get. Offender 1,200,000 was probably a net loss too.

Posted by: John Pfaff | Dec 9, 2009 8:40:54 PM

If we killed 10,000 ultra-violent criminals a year, we could cut crime by 90%, by attrition and by nothing else. The lawyer would lose his job. But, there would be zero expense babysitting hardened criminals for decades, no health care costs, no social costs of criminality.

In order to reach this state of effectiveness of the criminal law, you have to go through the radically obstructionist lawyer hierarchy. Lawyer control laws must be passed, excluding the lawyer internal traitor from all benches, legislative seats and policy positions. The entirety of the appellate court, federal and state must be arrested, tried and executed for their insurrection against the Constitution. These traitors have used supernatural doctrines violating the Establishment Clause. They have carried out judicial review, a form of coup d'etat prohibited by Article I Section 1 and by all state equivalents. They have loosed millions of lawyer clients to devastate our nation, generating $trillions in costs of crime control and direct damage from crime. Any foreign nation inflicting as much damage on our nation as the lawyer has done would get nuked in a minute. That the lawyer is still in place is the result of the takeover of the government by this traitor criminal cult enterprise. Purges and mass executions of these traitors will come after the next major terror attack. That risks 1776. I would like to see this happen in a systematic and methodical manner, starting now, before a major crisis causes exaggerated over-reactions.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 9, 2009 9:06:56 PM

Bill, you're just obfuscating so I won't bother with you today. Clearly YOU are the one ignoring data that doesn't agree with you, not Doug.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 10, 2009 6:30:24 AM

Grits --

"Bill, you're just obfuscating so I won't bother with you today. Clearly YOU are the one ignoring data that doesn't agree with you, not Doug."

This is the sort of "get lost" response you post when you lack an actual answer.

Do us both a favor and don't "bother with" me ANY day. I have tried more than once to talk to you in a civil and businesslike fashion, but it doesn't work. There are plenty of thoughtful liberals on this site with the independent turn of mind you lack. Just sticking your tongue out is not really appropriate at this level. It and you are tiresome.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 10, 2009 9:58:05 AM

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