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May 21, 2014

Fascinating exploration of modern data on modern mass incarceration

7 Trends in State Incarceration RatesIf you like data and like thinking hard about what to think about data about modern mass incarceration (and who doesn't), then you will be sure to like this interesting new posting authored by Andrew Cohen and Oliver Roeder at the Brennan Center for Justice headlined "Way Too Early to Declare Victory in War against Mass Incarceration." Here are excerpts (with some links retained) from an interesting and important bit of number crunching:  

At The Week Monday, Ryan Cooper summarized some dramatic statistical work about mass incarceration undertaken by Keith Humphreys, the Stanford University professor and former Obama administration senior advisor for drug policy. The headline of the piece, “The plummeting U.S. prison admission rate, in one stunning chart,” was accompanied by Cooper’s pronouncement that “whatever the reason” for the drop it “is certainly great news.” Some of the same optimism was expressed over the weekend, in The New York Times Book Review section, by David Cole, the esteemed Georgetown law professor who has written so eloquently recently about many of the greatest injustices in American law. Reviewing Columbia University professor Robert Ferguson’s excellent book, “Inferno,” Cole proclaimed that “we may be on our way out of the inferno” and that “it is just possible that we have reached a tipping point” in the fight against mass incarceration.

Would that it were so. It is far too early, as a matter of law, of policy, and of fact, to be talking about a “plummeting” prison rate in the United States or to be declaring that the end is in sight in the war to change the nation’s disastrous incarceration policies.  There is still far too much to do, far too many onerous laws and policies to change, too many hearts and minds to reform, too many families that would have to be reunited, before anyone could say that any sort of “tipping point” has been spotted, let alone reached.  So, to respond to Humphreys’ work, we asked Oliver Roeder, a resident economist at the Brennan Center for Justice, to crunch the numbers with a little bit more context and perspective. What follows below ought to shatter the myth that America has turned a corner on mass incarceration. The truth is that many states continue to experience more incarceration than before, the drop in national incarceration rates is far more modest than Humphreys suggests, and the trend toward reform could easily stop or turn back around on itself....

[T]he incarceration rate is decreasing, but no, not by much. It’s down 5.5 percent since its 2007 peak. Since 2001, it’s up 1.6 percent. An unscientific word for this trend would be “flat.”

As for individual states’ incarceration rates, experiences over the past decade have varied greatly.... California, New Jersey, and New York have dipped over 20 percent from their 2001 levels, while West Virginia, Minnesota, and Kentucky have seen over 30 percent increases.

Incarceration is a state-specific issue in other senses as well. Clearly the trends can vary dramatically, but so can the rates themselves. In 2012, Louisiana’s incarceration rate was 873, while Maine’s was 159....

So what’s the story? Well one thing it isn’t is crime. There is a body of evidence that indicates that crime doesn’t really affect incarceration. Incarceration, rather, is a policy choice, largely independent of the actual level of crime in the world. (The incarceration rate is not a result of one single policy choice, of course, but rather is a function of many policy choices which compose essentially our willingness or propensity to incarcerate.) Admissions and thus incarceration were increasing because of increased willingness to incarcerate, or reliance on incarceration. I don’t have a good sense as to why admissions and incarceration have been dipping lately, but it does seem to be driven by a minority of (typically large) states.

May 21, 2014 at 05:29 PM | Permalink

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