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February 20, 2009

Assessing the reality of modern prison growth

A helpful reader alerted me to this new Slate article by Professor John Pfaff, titled "Reform School: Five myths about prison growth dispelled." The piece builds off John's terrific and terrifically important article on "The Myths and Realities of Correctional Severity" (discussed here).  Here is how this Slate piece starts:

The United States has a prison population like nowhere else.  With one out of every 100 adults behind bars, our incarceration rate is the highest in the entire world. Our inmates — 1.5 million in prison, with another 800,000 in jail — comprise one-third of the world's total.  This is a surprisingly recent development. A fter barely budging for 50 years, our incarceration rate increased sevenfold (to 738 per 100,000 people) between 1978 and 2008.

The system is now at its breaking point.  Federal judges in California just issued a tentative order demanding that the state release nearly 60,000 inmates over the next three years to alleviate intolerable overcrowding.  New York state's sentencing commission released a 326-page report calling on the Legislature to cut back on severe drug sentences.  And with budgets growing ever-tighter in a collapsing economy, states are beginning to realize that large prison populations are boom-time luxuries they can no longer afford.

Reform is inevitable.  But if we are going to rein in our prison populations, we should do so based on facts, not on unfounded perceptions or shocking anecdotes.  So let's start by dispelling some of the myths that surround the breathtaking prison growth of the past three decades.

February 20, 2009 at 04:15 PM | Permalink


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He says the median prison stay is only two years. What is it when you only look at the fed level

Posted by: Student | Feb 20, 2009 7:05:29 PM

John Pfaff has done a good job of analysis of a very complex problem. I agree with most of his conclusions but I think there are important regional and state differences. If you look at arrest rate histories by offense type by state (data is available from 1960 to 2005) there appear to be regional differences. The state incarceration rate histories tend to lag the arrest rate histories for property crime (for violent and drug crime the lags are more complicated). If the property crime arrest rate starts to increase before the arrests rate increases violent and drug crimes the incarceration rate can build up to a high value before it levels off.

A fundamental problem is that legislatures can only do simple things and there are often unintended consequences. They normally respond to a problems several years after it has started and their remedy takes at least a year to become effective and there is no undo function so overshoot is a possibility. Lags of about five years appear to be typical.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 21, 2009 7:47:19 PM

I posted a reaction to Pfaff's piece here. His conclusions don't all seem to track our experience down in Texas.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Feb 23, 2009 8:18:27 AM

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