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July 27, 2017

Reviewing data and lessons of recent Urban Institute report on rising prison time

German Lopez has this new Vox piece that effectively reviews the data and lessons on the recent Urban Institute big new project on long prison terms titled, "A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons." (This prior post covered that report when it was first released a few weeks ago.)  The full title of this piece captures its primary themes: "Liberals often blame mass incarceration on the war on drugs.  That’s not quite right. A new report shows that the real increase in prison sentences has come from violent offenses, not lower-level crimes."  Here are excerpts:

“Longer sentences are stacking up,” Ryan King, the lead researcher for the Urban report, told me.  “And in many states, the data suggest that they’re stacking up at a rate significant enough that it can offset reforms for the less serious offenses.”

The report includes various other findings.  It found there are vast racial disparities in the top 10 percent of prison sentences, just as there are for lower-level offenses.  The people locked up also tend to be fairly young, which robs communities — particularly black neighborhoods — of people who could grow up to be productive citizens instead of serving out disproportionately harsh sentences. It also told the stories of a few people who suffered through some of these long sentences.  You should really read the whole thing.

But I want to home in on the big finding because it shows what the traditional story about mass incarceration has gotten wrong.  Much of the attention has gone to harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, but they seem to have had a fairly small impact on overall incarceration rates.  What seemed to change, instead, is that the system enforced longer prison sentences for some of the worst offenses — and that led to a lot more imprisonment....

To really address the problem of mass incarceration, then, it’s not enough to just focus on drug crimes; it’s also important to focus on violent offenses. It’s also not enough to just focus on the laws guiding prison sentences; it’s also necessary to look at how those laws are enforced in the real world. And addressing all of these issues will require a truly systemic effort — from addressing what the local prosecutor is doing to what laws state policymakers pass to what the president and his attorney general are asking the US Department of Justice to do.

It will be a long, arduous effort.  After years of lawmakers building up incarceration at every level of government, it will likely take years of more policymaking at every level of government to unwind what previous generations of leaders have done.  “This is a long-term project,” King of Urban said. “But we do see it as one that’s ringing a bell saying, look, we’re going to have to deal with this.”

July 27, 2017 at 06:02 PM | Permalink


The lawyer has a deep misunderstanding of the real purpose of prison. Most the people there have been addressed by many alternatives, have been beaten, and seen people killed in their lifestyle world. They have tasted of the many, many rewards of crime. One of the most important is the freedom from regulation. Yes, the money is good. Yes, the sex with intense crazed crack addicts is good. But, the best part is you do what you want, and do not have to listen to annoying little tyrants. Someone annoys me? I blast them holding a Nine sideways. Instant satisfaction. What do you have to offer, that is better than that?

They cannot be deterred, almost by definition. They cannot be punished enough, since the rewards are too great to give up.

They have proven many times, many ways, they cannot function in the outside world. They are major natural disasters wherever they go. And, they will never change, anymore than anyone else can change.

That leaves incapacitation, preferably for life. At 200 crimes a year, each causing $10,000 in direct and in collateral damages, the $50,000 it costs to keep them in stir is one of the biggest bargains of any human service or product. Where can you get a guaranteed $2 million return on investment of $50,000, year after year, after year, after year, for decades?

The only better investment is the opiate overdose epidemic. You get the same benefits for $0, for free. One problem with that remedy? No lawyer jobs, so the lawyers are all upset,and giving prescription drugs to the police to save their clients.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 27, 2017 9:02:18 PM

Okay, the author admits that violent crime is the driver for increased overall sentence lengths. What exact value are these offenders supposed to give the neighborhoods they have been removed from? I simply have a hard time seeing how anyone can seriously believe the vast majority of convicts have anything positive to offer (even to themselves).

And perhaps that is the source of such thinking, the author doesn't need to have anything to do with the neighborhoods in question and can thus inflict crime on others without consequence.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jul 28, 2017 1:21:53 AM

SH. You pose a question about the mystery of pro-criminal advocacy, and the decarceration movement. When the prisoners are dumped onto poor neighborhoods, like toxic sludge, cause mayhem, and damages like a natural disaster, what is needed? The answer is, government services of all types, for them, their victims, the property they damage. They will also spawn more offspring than average, mostly with their female equivalents, and generate even more necessity for government services. Because children carry half the genes of their father and half of their mothers, they are guaranteed to have no chance in life, outside of government dependency.

And what is government, today? It is a wholly owned subsidiary of the lawyer profession, a criminal cult enterprise (CCE)that has infiltrated and controls the three branches of government 99%. This is worth $trillion to the CCE.

Posted by: David Behar | Jul 28, 2017 9:58:27 AM

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