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December 12, 2012

Big new New York Times series on social science of incarceration

NYTI am very excited to see that the today's New York Times has a pair of big articles as part of a new series on incarceration policies and practices. The series appears to be called "Time and Punishment: Tossing the Key," and it is described this way: "John Tierney, the Findings columnist for Science Times, is exploring the social science of incarceration. Future articles in this series will look at the effects of current policies on families and communities, and new ideas for dealing with offenders." Kudos to the Times for giving these important legal and social issues the extended attention they merit.

Here are the headlines and links to today's two NY Times pieces that kick of this series: "For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars" and "Life Without Parole: Four Inmates’ Stories." Here is a key portion from the start of the first of these articles:

Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.

But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, causing too many Americans like Ms. George to be locked up for too long at too great a price — economically and socially.

The criticism is resonating with some state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop the prison population’s growth. The social scientists are attracting attention partly because the drop in crime has made it a less potent political issue, and partly because of the states’ financial problems.

State spending on corrections, after adjusting for inflation, has more than tripled in the past three decades, making it the fastest-growing budgetary cost except Medicaid. Even though the prison population has leveled off in the past several years, the costs remain so high that states are being forced to reduce spending in other areas.

Three decades ago, California spent 10 percent of its budget on higher education and 3 percent on prisons. In recent years the prison share of the budget rose above 10 percent while the share for higher education fell below 8 percent. As university administrators in California increase tuition to cover their deficits, they complain that the state spends much more on each prisoner — nearly $50,000 per year — than on each student.

Many researchers agree that the rise in imprisonment produced some initial benefits, particularly in urban neighborhoods, where violence decreased significantly in the 1990s. But as sentences lengthened and the prison population kept growing, it included more and more nonviolent criminals like Ms. George.

Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.

Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.

While many scholars still favor tough treatment for violent offenders, they have begun suggesting alternatives for other criminals. James Q. Wilson, the conservative social scientist whose work in the 1970s helped inspire tougher policies on prison, several years ago recommended diverting more nonviolent drug offenders from prisons to treatment programs.

Two of his collaborators, George L. Kelling of the Manhattan Institute and John J. DiIulio Jr. of the University of Pennsylvania, have joined with prominent scholars and politicians, including Jeb Bush and Newt Gingrich, in a group called Right on Crime. It advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders” so that they become “a greater risk to the public than when they entered.”

These views are hardly universal, particularly among elected officials worried about a surge in crime if the prison population shrinks. Prosecutors have resisted attempts to change the system, contending that the strict sentences deter crime and induce suspects to cooperate because the penalties provide the police and prosecutors with so much leverage.

Some of the strongest evidence for the benefit of incarceration came from studies by a University of Chicago economist, Steven D. Levitt, who found that penal policies were a major factor in reducing crime during the 1990s. But as crime continued declining and the prison population kept growing, the returns diminished.

“We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up,” Dr. Levitt said. “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

Some social scientists argue that the incarceration rate is now so high that the net effect is “crimogenic”: creating more crime over the long term by harming the social fabric in communities and permanently damaging the economic prospects of prisoners as well as their families. Nationally, about one in 40 children have a parent in prison. Among black children, one in 15 have a parent in prison.

December 12, 2012 at 10:24 AM | Permalink


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The group called Right on Crime "advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies 'have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders' so that they become 'a greater risk to the public than when they entered.'”

Regrettably, in my experience this observation is true.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | Dec 12, 2012 2:40:28 PM

Steven Levitt's quote is pretty amazing since he is often cited as source for the efficacy of past incarceration rate increases.

Posted by: Thinkaboutit | Dec 12, 2012 3:04:31 PM

In 95% of cases, the adjudicated charge is fictitious. It may be non-violent, but a substitute for an extremely violent indictment charge. So those criminals were not hardened by prison, but entered it hardened. Until a study is done classifying inmates by their indicted charges rather than adjudicated charges, any conclusion is based on fiction, is scientific fraud, is dangerous garbage science.

Prof. Berman should stop promulgating dangerous, left wing, false garbage science, or at least provide a warning label, "dangerous left wing lawyer propaganda."

Anyone else here tired of total reliance of the lawyer profession on fictional doctrines and principles, but with very real and physical world consequences for crime victims? The profession is appalling in its intentional, knowing idiocy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 14, 2012 7:32:45 AM

Supremacy Claus,

So is you point that we don't actually have a problem that our incarceration rate is 8X that of the UK and people like Stephanie George find themselves in prison for life? Are your nuts?

Posted by: Mark | Dec 14, 2012 12:04:07 PM

Mark: My point was about basing any conclusion on fictitious adjudicated charges made up in a plea bargain. Put aside the objection to made up data.

When you go to Britain, do you feel safe walking around? Then it is you who are nuts. They are having a massive, covered up crime wave there, and all along still coddling their criminals. Those twit Commie rent seekers are even importing terror docs for their Health Service, since their local docs do not want to serve for pennies. These terror docs were so incompetent, they burned themselves trying to set off an explosion at the airport. They survived the flames, but not the burn care of other incompetent terror docs on the underfunded burn unit.

Britain is not a good counter example. Their criminal beleaguered population has been trained to suffer in silence.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 15, 2012 4:09:23 AM

Supremacy Clause,

I have my answer: you are indeed a true madman. And a sadistic one at that. Folks like you are the reason our criminal justice system is such a mess.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 15, 2012 12:26:04 PM

Mark --

"Folks like you are the reason our criminal justice system is such a mess."

Only it's not a mess. Procedural protections for the defendant have never been more numerous, and the crime rate has fallen 50% in a generation. This makes the criminal justice system an incredible success story, better by far than all our poverty programs (which now have more people below the poverty line than at any time since the line was invented), or our entitlement programs, which are driving the country into bankruptcy.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Dec 15, 2012 11:25:19 PM

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