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June 27, 2007

The latest BJS stats on incarceration nation

Fresh off the presses from the Bureau of Justice Statistics is its report at this link entitled, "Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006." Here are some ugly particulars from this official press release from BJS:

During the 12 months that ended June 30, 2006, the nation's prison and jail populations increased by 62,037 inmates (up 2.8 percent), to total 2,245,189 inmates, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported today. State and federal inmates accounted for 70 percent of the increase.  At midyear 2006, two-thirds of the nation’s incarcerated population was in custody in a state or federal prison (1,479,179), and the other one-third was held in local jails (766,010)....

Forty-two states and the federal system reported an increase in their prison populations during the 12 months ending June 30, 2006. Idaho had the largest percentage increase (up 13.7 percent), followed by Alaska (up 9.4 percent) and Vermont (up 8.3 percent). Eight states reported declines in their prison populations, led by Missouri (down 2.9 percent), Louisiana and Maine (both down 1.8 percent).

The number of federal prisoners increased by 3.6 percent to reach 191,080 prisoners.  At midyear 2006 the federal system had jurisdiction over more prisoners than did any single state, including California and Texas, which had jurisdiction over 175,115 and 172,889 prisoners, respectively....

Black men comprised 37 percent of all inmates held in custody in the nation's prison and jails on June 30, 2006.  About 4.8 percent of all black males in the general population were in prison or jail, compared to 1.9 percent of Hispanic males and 0.7 percent of white males.  Among black men age 25 to 34 years, more than 11 percent were incarcerated in prison or jail.

As I prepare for a coming July Fourth trip to our Nation's capital, perhaps readers can help me understand how these statistics jibe with my favorite line from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

June 27, 2007 at 03:25 PM | Permalink


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Sure, there are lots of people that say the number is too high, but since the number usually goes up, it is a fair bet that there are probably more people that think it is too low. I wish people would be more intellectually honest when these figures come out and declare:

1) Americans are abnormally bad people and need to be put in jail more than people in peer countries; and

2) The continued presence of crime proves that we must work harder at putting a greater percentage of the country in jail both by a) enacting new substantive crimes; and b) reworking the constitution to make it easier to put the bad people (i.e. Americans) in jail.

Posted by: S.cotus | Jun 27, 2007 3:53:36 PM

As I prepare for a coming July Fourth trip to our Nation's capital, perhaps readers can help me understand how these statistics jibe with my favorite line from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Perhaps you can help us understand how the Declaration of Independence either abolishes jails or mandates the establishment of a quota system for jails so that we can have a prison population that "looks like America."

Posted by: | Jun 27, 2007 4:30:20 PM

Although the previous commenter presents the idea as a joke, perhaps a quota system is the only way to ensure that the criminal justice system treats everyone equally and fairly without regard to skin color and ethnicity. As it is, these statistics are another demonstration of how the applicability of the Bill of Rights depends on race and how dark skin color is interpreted at every level of the (in)justice system -- beginning with the cop on the street -- as a substitute for reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

Posted by: defense attorney | Jun 27, 2007 4:43:10 PM

Although the previous commenter presents the idea as a joke, perhaps a quota system is the only way to ensure that the criminal justice system treats everyone equally and fairly without regard to skin color and ethnicity.

Wow. How could such a misguided system possibly comport with even-handed standards of due process? Perhaps laws simply aren't broken "equally and fairly" across all racial, ethnic, skin color or (probably most to the point) economic lines. Not every racial disparity is grounded in race-based animus.

Posted by: Ben D | Jun 27, 2007 4:54:44 PM

The racial composition of the prison population is worth taking seriously, but I view it as an extremely complicated question and one that is ill-served by holding up the statistics and the Declaration of Independence side-by-side and hinting at some kind of inconsistency.

As Ben D. suggests, it's far from obvious that race-based animus provides a complete or even a significant explanation for the demographics of the prison population.

S. Cotus's comments are interesting. I've always been curious about why the United States has a higher rate of incarceration and generally longer sentences than other Western democracies.

Posted by: 4:30 anonymous | Jun 27, 2007 5:51:29 PM

I look at these reports frequently and the number differs slightly from years to year with a 3% growth rate pretty typical. The probability of prison incarceration for a Black is 6.7 times that of a White and for jail the ratio is 4.8 with large state to state variations.

There are two common interpretations.
1) That everyone has an equal probability of being incarcerated in prison and the excess of Blacks is because the criminal justice system is racist. My personal view is the assumption that everyone has an equal probability of being incarcerated is hogwash. It is possible the CJS is racist in fact, but not by design, because of the great difficulty of cleanly separating variables.
2) Blacks are genetically hardwired to become criminals. I think that is also hogwash.
There is no unified theory of crime causality so people can get away with such BS.

The study of the causes of behavior involves asking "Why did you do that?" The answers can be grouped into the following classes
a) Correct answers.
b) Ambiguous answers.
c) Incorrect answers.
d) Refuse to answer.

In the study of criminal behavior giving a correct answer could have very serious consequences for the offender. Therefore the study of crime causality has a very serious data quality problems.

I think a fruitful line of investigation is to ask where do the prison inmates come from and what do they have in common? There are about 2000 zip codes in Iowa and I was able to show that 75% of the Iowa prison inmates with known home zip codes lived in 67 zip codes. They were urban low income neighborhoods with large minority populations. A lot of them were serving short sentences (less than five years) for property and drug offenses and a high proportion were returnees. The reason I did the study was I read a report that New York had a similar distribution of prisoners and I wondered if Iowa with no very large cities would have a similar distribution.

Posted by: JSN | Jun 27, 2007 6:04:48 PM

4:30 anon: I do not believe --- nor was my comment meant in any way to suggest --- that the "Declaration of Independence either abolishes jails or mandates the establishment of a quota system for jails so that we can have a prison population that 'looks like America'." That said, as other commentors have usefully highlighted, I believe we all should wonder why a country purported founded on principles of equality and liberty has such a high and racially skewed prison population. (Of course, this country's history with slavery and other racialized realities highlights that we've never been true to our principles.)

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 27, 2007 6:24:29 PM

"racially skewed prison population"

Skewed relative to what? The general population? That is completely irrelevant. Relative to the demographic makeup of persons who have committed felonies? That would be the relevant comparison, but is the prison population in fact skewed? I don't know the answer to that overall and would be interested in the data, if available.

For the most controversial segment of the prison population, death row, the answer is available. The percentage of African-Americans on death row is smaller than the percentage in the relevant population: murderers.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 27, 2007 7:17:19 PM


The persons who are convicted of felonies are either put on probation, in residential work release, shock probation or in prison and this whole process is complicated by possibility of race being a factor in plea bargaining. So your question can be restated as, is incarceration more likely for Blacks than a prison alternative? In Iowa the answer to that question depends on the county. From discussion on this and other blogs I suspect that is true for other states as well.

In Iowa the judges are appointed but they have to run every four years to be retained and there are some counties people who are very critical of lenient judges.

Posted by: JSN | Jun 27, 2007 8:27:25 PM

Kent: I would add to JSN's point that comparisons to the general population are not "completely irrelevant." There are good reason to believe that there are criminogenic conditions that contribute to criminality --- e.g., poverty, lack of education, poor family structure --- which American voters might try to remedy. But, arguably, majority voters decide not to invest resources in this costly endeavor because the majority of imprisoned law-breakers do not share their heritage and thus only a skewed group has to suffer the consequences of these criminogenic conditions.

Also, as the crack/powder disparity highlights at the federal level, a type of crime more often committed by black and easier for police to detect in public areas may (sometimes? often?) be subject to harsher sentences than a very similar crime more often committed by whites and harder for police to detect in public areas.

This is not to say that the raw data establish any sort of conclusive case of overt racial bias in law or practice. But unless and until you are prepared to assert that black males are inherently SEVEN TIMES more like to be serious criminals by nature, the raw data should lead us to worry somewhat about how well American society lives up to its stated commitment to equality.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 27, 2007 8:58:44 PM

Speaking of the Constitution, to a lot of neoconservatives, and even a lot of liberals, it's "just a piece of paper."

They would do away with much of it if they could and they hunt the news for good reasons to do so.

Think Gitmo for criminals.

Posted by: George | Jun 28, 2007 2:20:43 AM

Doug, we have corresponded long enough that I will assume that your last paragraph was not intended to be as gratuitously insulting as it would seem to be on its face. I am confident that I have not written anything that any fair-minded person could construe as implying a genetic basis for the ethnic differential in crime rates.

The high rates of crime in inner city areas with large racial minority populations are indeed of great concern. It should be addressed in terms of the real problem, the crime rate, and not disguised in a statistic where it shows up as a side-effect, the incarceration rate.

In your first paragraph, you seem to be convinced that massive spending by government on social programs can reduce crime by attacking the so-called root causes. We've been there and done that. It was called the Great Society. It was a catastrophic failure. Many of us have not forgotten history and do not wish to repeat it.

Simply because some people do not agree with you on what to do about crime does not mean that they don't want to do anything, and it certainly does not mean that their motivations are racist. To those of us who believe that strong punishment of violent crime is an essential element of crime control, it appears that those who oppose us are the ones who are insensitive to crime victims, of whom a disproportionate number are minorities.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 28, 2007 6:13:16 PM

Kent: "To those of us who believe that strong punishment of violent crime, is an essential element of crime control, it appears that those who oppose us are the ones who are insensitive to crime victims, of whom a disproportionate number are minorities."

This is a fine piece of propaganda and about sums it up.

Us? You meant the federalist society? The neocons? Who? Who is it that cares more about crime victims? This is about as disingenuous as it gets, a lot like those against invading Iraq were traitors.

55 years for selling pot is a violent crime?

I'd rather someone not go to prison at all. No crime victim, no prison. How is that not caring about crime victims?

Indeed, some crime victim organizations are starting to realize how they were used. The backlash cometh.

New Study Shows How Often Juries Get It Wrong

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Juries across the country make decisions every day on the fate of defendants, ideally leading to prison sentences that fit the crime for the guilty and release for the innocent. Yet a new Northwestern University study shows that juries in criminal cases many times are getting it wrong.

In a set of 271 cases from four areas, juries gave wrong verdicts in at least one out of eight cases, according to “Estimating the Accuracy of Jury Verdicts,” a paper by a Northwestern University statistician that is being published in the July issue of Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

“Contrary to popular belief, this study strongly suggests that DNA or other after-the-fact evidence is not the only way to know how often jury verdicts are correct,” said Bruce Spencer, the study's author, professor of statistics and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern. “Based on findings from a limited sample, I am optimistic that larger, carefully designed statistical studies would have much to tell us about the accuracy of jury verdicts.”

Posted by: George | Jun 28, 2007 11:06:38 PM

Kent, I meant no insult. But, since I think we share a concern about "violent crime" and "crime victims," I wonder why aren't more troubled by the (excessive?) resources devoted to imprisoning certain nonviolent crimes and the inadaquate resources often devoted to certain crimes like drunk driving that produce massive numbers of victims. I don't think conscious racism explains your concerns or commitments, but I do think the fact that most persons behind bars do not look and sound like the persons making the criminal laws plays a role in the realities of our criminal justice system

I wouldbe grateful if you could help me understand why, exactly, sale of a small quantity of crack or certian consentualy sexual encounters between teenagers (e.g., the Genarlow Wilson case) --- which merely creates a small risk of harms and victimization --- can land folks in prison for years. And yet undisputed incidents of drunk driving (e.g., Paris Hilton)--- which likewise generally creates a small risk of harms and victimization --- very rarely even get anyone set to jail for more than a few days unless/until there is a serious accident victim (at which point the system is already too late).

Posted by: Doug B. | Jun 29, 2007 1:00:24 AM

Professor, Paris had one drink and a .08 BAC. Some sleep deprived drivers can be just as dangerous, and that doesn't mean sleepy enough to fall asleep at the wheel.

Where does crime and non-crime start and end?

Posted by: George | Jun 29, 2007 3:41:36 AM

Most juvenile delinquents are diverted and do not become adult criminals where most adult criminals were juvenile delinquents. In my county (90% White) we have good schools, a low unemployment rate and a lot of resources which are devoted to diversion of juvenile offenders. We also have a very low crime and overall jail incarceration rates for both Blacks and Whites but we still have high Black/White incarceration rate ratio (about 6) for our jail inmates.

We think that one of the factors that is responsible for the high B/W ratio is that we have a positive net migration of poor people who are leaving neighborhood in large cities that have poor schools and high unemployment and crime rates and are moving to our county. If we prepare a map of the geographical distribution of calls to the police for service the hot spots are blocks where the landlords will accept subsidized housing vouchers. A graphic demonstration of the association of crime with poverty.

Posted by: JSN | Jun 29, 2007 9:56:44 AM

Doug, if you are under the impression that I am in favor of the 100/1 cocaine ratio or of the judgment in the Wilson case, you are mistaken.

I have said multiple times that the 100/1 is bad policy. I'm not certain, but I've probably said so on this blog.

However, it is error to jump from the premises that a policy is bad and that it has a greater impact on minorities to the conclusion that it was enacted with racial animus. I've have to check to be sure, but as I recall the Congressional Black Caucus supported the 100/1 ratio when it was enacted.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jun 29, 2007 11:45:47 AM

A lot of arguments with anecdotes here. What does Genarlow Wilson's fate have to say about the justice system as a whole? It is a miniscule data point.

Perhaps we should let people sell crack and meth and LSD. Perhaps we should not. But the fact that minorities are concentrated in certain crimes does not make enforcement of the law in that area racist.

One way, I think, to determine, on a macro level, whether criminal justice system has racial bias would be to look at the prior criminal histories of all lifers and people with effectively a life sentence. If whites have significantly higher criminal histories before the crime that landed them in the pokey for good, then it can be argued that they did more and were eventually freed. But what if it produces the opposite data?

I think Kent's right about the CBC supporting harsh crack punishment--especially NYC black congressmen, who were very vocal about crack when it hit NYC.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 2, 2007 6:12:48 PM

I am a student of St.Louis, MO, however my husband is incarcerated in Waterloo, IA. The details are heartbreaking and the law is unjust. Where does it end?
What can do to help.

Posted by: Imani Jones | Sep 20, 2007 10:09:21 PM

In reading the many comments here, I find the lack of discussion of the incidence of crime across racial and socio-economic barriers interesting in that no one speaks to the divergence in the types of crimes committed within divergent socio-economic (and thus racial) groups.

Access to various means of criminal activity is rarely discussed. The fact that lawyers commit different types of crimes than do those without profession or formal education because people do what they know and act within the opportunities presented them by the context of their occurrence is both obvious and rarely discussed.

Those interested in decreasing crime might do well to consider the arguments of Machiavelli and De Sade when assessing the lessons they would teach regarding the meaning of the behavior of the economic ultra elite.

Many of our youth look to the teachings of Machiavelli for guidance. The popular line of clothing with that name bares that fact. They look for such guidance because they see that the rich and powerful act within that framework. Hell, Regan even said aloud: I got mine, You get yours.

Positive values rot in the feculent waste of the apathetic and ignorant focused only on "improving" their standard of living, regardless the cost to the next person or generation.

Bush and his regieme are examples easy to point out. They don't need no stinking badges. They do as they will and do so with impunity because they have carfully rigged the game in their favor better than has anyone else thrying to play.

Kids in the streets sling dope because they are doing the same thing, they do what they can do and do so because they can.

Maybe this is understandable...I hope so.

Anyway, I am a mental health provider attempting to counter some of the trash fed kids.

Mark Davis

Posted by: Mark A Davis | Jan 1, 2008 10:12:11 PM

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