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January 24, 2012

"The Caging of America: Why do we lock up so many people?"

The title of this post is the headline given to this extended and thoughtful new article by Adam Gopnik appearing in The New Yorker. The full piece is a must-read, in part because it defies easy labels and lacks many polemics.  Here are a few of many interesting passages:

For most privileged, professional people, the experience of confinement is a mere brush, encountered after a kid’s arrest, say.  For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones.  More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives.  Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today — perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850.  In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system — in prison, on probation, or on parole — than were in slavery then.  Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America — more than six million — than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.  That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States....

[I]f, in 1980, someone had predicted that by 2012 New York City would have a crime rate so low that violent crime would have largely disappeared as a subject of conversation, he would have seemed not so much hopeful as crazy.  Thirty years ago, crime was supposed to be a permanent feature of the city, produced by an alienated underclass of super-predators; now it isn’t.  Something good happened to change it, and you might have supposed that the change would be an opportunity for celebration and optimism.  Instead, we mostly content ourselves with grudging and sardonic references to the silly side of gentrification, along with a few all-purpose explanations, like broken-window policing. This is a general human truth: things that work interest us less than things that don’t....

[S]mall acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened — “hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk” — “designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it — that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.” This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same race or color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already.   Minority communities, [Professor Frank] Zimring emphasizes, paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced.   “The poor pay more and get more” is Zimring’s way of putting it. He believes that a “light” program of stop-and-frisk could be less alienating and just as effective, and that by bringing down urban crime stop-and-frisk had the net effect of greatly reducing the number of poor minority kids in prison for long stretches.

January 24, 2012 at 09:46 AM | Permalink


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Ordinary common sense about crime reduction. It's in the New Yorker not in a law review. Gopnik. Not a lawyer.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 24, 2012 10:53:27 AM

In my opinion this is what has contributed to the reduction of crime.
The crack epidemic is done, totally out of control gangs is less and incarcerating more people, for a longer time...

I do think federal drug sentences are way out of wack, MM and 3 strikes, but this is where we are and I don't see much changing down the road.. It appears that the Feds are going to keep stretching out the sentences for all...Its broken, and out of control...When is over done, enough to satisfy 3553..

Posted by: Josh2 | Jan 24, 2012 3:47:40 PM

Bill I have put together a little graph...Can you tell why the Mary Jane equiv for psuedo is 5 times that of powder meth...Cocaine was at one time 1:100 ratio to crack its base..It never made sense to me, if one got caught making crystal meth then its half of what crytal is, ok... But if your crew and captain were cooking powder meth, then the mary jane equiv for psuedo really should be about half what meth is....Bill explain to me where I am off base....I noticed this back a few yrs ago....I think its way off base.. Another thing, meth is to whites as crack is to blacks....I'm under the impression pure meth is crystal meth or am I off base. I have never seen reports as to the purity of powder meth
reported.. Psuedo is the base for powder or impure meth...(about 50%) Why so high, other than they want to hang meth manufacturing.. Its interesting for sure.

Marihuana Ratio to
1 Gram Equivlant Powder Cocaine
Cocaine 200 gm 1:1
Meth 2 kgm 10:1
New Crack 3.6 kgm 18:1
Psuedo 10 kgm 50:1
Pure Meth 20 kgm 100:1

Posted by: Josh2 | Jan 24, 2012 4:02:28 PM

In the early 90s I started hearing about college kids facing long prison sentences for selling pot at Grateful Dead concerts. Then I read Vonnegut's Jailbreak (where prisons supplant manufacturing as a major American industry, but the guards are Japanese who barely speak English), did some research, and saw the absurdity of a privatized prison system.

I'm happy Gopnik mentioned it. It seems obvious to me that a society that trades a penal system as a necessary evil to a privatized sector of growth-oriented companies that can be traded on stock exchanges has made a huge mistake. I posted a request for a review of this policy on change.gov back in those halcyon days before Obama took office -- that post got more positive votes than any other suggestion.

While I agree with Gopnik's analysis of the Bill of Rights, I don't see much change in the incarceration rate until the prison system is renationalized.

Bill (not involved with the legal or criminal system in any way except for a couple of tickets for speeding as a teenager; fortunately no time needed to be served

Posted by: Bill Kidder | Jan 25, 2012 2:16:52 AM

|| Why do we lock up so many people? ||

Because, like targeted patrols, profiling, and other policing tactical improvements,
it has reduced crime.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 25, 2012 9:49:10 AM

Re: "it has reduced crime"

From the story:

"One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison."

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Jan 26, 2012 8:36:51 AM

Re: "it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison"

Indisputably, as Former NYC & Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton once stated, "Police have gotten much better at analyzing numbers and responding quickly." {Wash Post 2009}
Mapping, hot spots, focused (profiled) deployment resulted in what? Incarceration. Consistent sentencing from say '93-'08 kept criminals out of NYC--in upstate prisons--and robbed the community of criminal tutors for good spells.

This effective thrust by law enforcement allowed us by 2010 or so to thenceforth tentatively offer more parole, localized county bids, and conditional releases in New York State.

So you and the New Yorkers above are right in crediting law enforcement *patrol* for our crime decline, but even here in the rarefied air of the North we recognize as well law enforcement *corrections*, and the attorneys and judges who locked away the crooks. Can't have one without the other. Except in Prof. Zimring's universe/university.

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 26, 2012 1:22:13 PM

Adamakis --

It's just an old statistical trick. If you winnow down the sample size to include only one (of 50) states -- a state you have preselected because you know it's going to produce anomalous results favorable to your agenda -- you can indeed "show" that reducing imprisonment correlates with a reduction in crime.

It helps to employ the "right" researcher, too. Dr. Zimring is a professor at Berkeley, and Director of the aptly named Earl Warren Institute. One of his books is apropriately (from his point of view) titiled, "Crime is Not the Problem: Violence in America). (Our more than ten million victims of serious crime last year would probably love to know that "crime is not the problem").

If, however, you are willing to use a much larger sample size -- say the whole country over a period of 20 years -- the result is very different. Grits himself summarized it quite accurately three days ago when he said, "The best econometric studies of incarceration (e.g, Levitt, Spelman) estimate locking people up is responsible for about a quarter of the crime reduction over the last two decades."

As I later showed on the same thread, and without dispute, what this means is that, BECAUSE OF increased incarceration. we have OVER ONE MILLION FEWER VICTIMS OF SERIOUS CRIME PER YEAR NOW than we did in the relatively low incarceration days of the early 1990's.

Obviously, there's another three-quarters of the crime drop-off to be accounted for. But the reasons for that have also been determined in the Levitt and Spelman studies. There are three of them: More aggressive and targeted policing (I'm still waiting for the Left to endorse that one); the federal government's successful attack on the violence-happy crack wars (I missed the ACLU's enthusiasm for that too); and the greater availability of abortion (we report, you decide).

In other words, facts that Grits has already acknowledged (here: http://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/2012/01/the-law-and-economics-of-fluctuating-criminal-tendencies.html#comments) belie the present implication, quoted from the ever-reliable Dr. Zimring, that, as respects NYC, "Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison."

Nationwide, the exact opposite is true, and in huge numbers.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 26, 2012 2:28:15 PM

Bill: More aggressive and targetted policing...Yes, it hones in on the ones that need to go away...Also, better police, most have college and are active in their communities...They know whats going on and where to find the boys..Numerous fators beside just more and longer incarceration.. But that too
has contributed... How can it not...Keep the right ones in...There are people out there that just don't belong on the street.

Posted by: Josh2 | Jan 26, 2012 3:34:58 PM

"It's just an old statistical trick. If you winnow down the sample size to include only one (of 50) states..."

The real "statistical trick" here is characterizing the sample as "one state" - to be more accurate, "one city" - rather than, say, "8.1 million people."

The suggestion that there's no principled reason in this context to look at New York - the most populous city in the United States - is difficult to fathom.

Posted by: Michael Drake | Jan 31, 2012 2:24:17 AM

i like the blog it is eye opening

Posted by: jerry edwards | May 18, 2012 6:51:02 PM

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