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June 26, 2008

The Sentencing Project reponds to prison-crime commentary

This morning I received via e-mail this notable notice from The Sentencing Project:

In a recent syndicated column ("More Prisons, Less Crime"), commentator George Will argues that the world record incarceration rate in the United States has produced safer streets and has been beneficial in particular to African Americans, who are disproportionately victims of crime.  Will's selective use of data and limited vision provide an inaccurate portrayal of current criminal justice policy and its effects.

In a briefing paper, The Sentencing Project refutes Will's argument on prison racial disparities, federal crack cocaine sentencing and the impact of incarceration on crime. Do Prisons Equal Less Crime? provides an assessment of some of the key arguments raised in the Will column.

Here is one snippet from The Sentencing Project's effective briefing paper:

While differential crime offending is one contributing factor to racial disparities in prison, a wealth of research documents that it only explains a portion of the patterns in imprisonment.  A comprehensive review of research in the field conducted for the National Institute of Justice concluded that "race and ethnicity do play an important role in contemporary sentencing decisions. Black and Hispanic offenders -- and particularly those who are young, male, or unemployed -- are more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to prison; in some jurisdictions, they also receive longer sentences...than do similarly situated white offenders."

June 26, 2008 at 10:06 AM | Permalink


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The probability of incarceration depends on
1) Age
2) Gender
3) Race/Ethnicity
4) Social Economic Status
5) Offense Class (severity)
6) Offense Type (violent, property, drug, public order and other)
7) Residential Status

Both George Will and the Sentencing Project have ignored age, gender, offense class and residential status and concentrated on a subset of offense types for Blacks and Whites with a nod in the direction of SES.

The Sentencing Project combined data from jail and prisons that have different functions. Combining the data served no useful purpose and because of the low quality of the jail data degraded the overall quality of the data.

The distribution of persons incarcerated on June 30, 2007 was 1.53 million federal and state prison inmates and 0.77 million jail inmates. Two thirds of the jail inmates are released within a day so there is no incapacitation benefit from holding them and the other third is incarcerated for an average of three weeks. Using $70 per inmate day for the national average cost of incarceration the incapacitation cost totals $39.4 billion or about $130 per capita.

The question then is the per capita cost of crime larger or smaller than the $130 per capita incapacitation cost. I don't think there is much doubt that shoplifting alone costs more than that but we don't catch most shoplifters or put them in prison. Most drug traffickers that are incarcerated are immediately replaced by other drug traffickers so there is no incapacitation benefit for that particular offense subtype.

Posted by: John Neff | Jun 26, 2008 11:40:06 AM

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