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January 3, 2018

Detailing increase in felony convictions nationwide in modern times

Stateline has this new piece, headlined "Felony Conviction Rates Have Risen Sharply, But Unevenly," with detailed data on how increases in the number of felony convictions has come to define the modern criminal justice era in the United States. Here are some details:

In recent decades, every state has seen a dramatic increase in the share of its population convicted of a felony, leaving more people facing hurdles in finding a job and a place to live and prompting some states to revisit how they classify crimes.

In Georgia, 15 percent of the adult population was a felon in 2010, up from around 4 percent in 1980. The rate was above 10 percent in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana and Texas. Less than 5 percent of the population in Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and West Virginia were felons, but every state had a large increase between 1980 and 2010, when the felony population ranged from 1 to 5 percent, according to a University of Georgia study published in October....

Proponents of more lenient sentencing tend to focus on imprisonment, where Louisiana and Oklahoma have the highest rates, but probation is more common. There were 1.9 million people on felony probation in 2015, compared to 1.5 million in prison. In 2010, the two figures were about the same, at 1.6 million, according to the latest federal statistics.

Many view probation as a more humane alternative to imprisonment, said Michelle Phelps, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. But in some states probation has become a “net widener” that draws more nonviolent criminals into the stigma and harsh supervision of a felony conviction.

Phelps pointed to Minnesota, which has one of the lowest rates of imprisonment, but ranked 16th for felon population in 2010. That year felons were about 9 percent of Minnesota’s population, or nearly quadruple the rate in 1980. “Though it’s frequently dismissed as a slap on the wrist, probation can entail onerous requirements,” Phelps said. For instance, probation can require a job and good housing as a condition for staying out of prison, but the felony conviction itself can make it hard or impossible to get that job.

Gary Mohr, who heads Ohio’s Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, said a felony conviction can have lifelong consequences, no matter whether the punishment is imprisonment or probation. “Even probation or a six-month sentence is really a life sentence because it affects jobs, it affects housing, it affects everything in their lives,” Mohr said....

The findings may help put probation reform on the front burner in some states. In Georgia, a February 2017 report by a state commission called for shorter probation sentences and lighter caseloads for probation officers. (The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline, assisted with the paper.) Almost 3 percent of Georgia’s adult population was on felony probation as of 2015 — far more than any other state and a 12 percent increase from 2010, according to the latest federal figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics....

When crime rates rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, local and state leaders hired more police and they made more arrests, including felony arrests, Phelps said. In addition, many states elevated nonviolent crimes like drug possession to felony status, and many district attorneys adopted a get-tough strategy, seeking felony charges whenever possible. Police focused drug enforcement on high-crime neighborhoods, which were often predominantly African-American, Phelps said. As a result, felony convictions rose much faster among blacks than among whites.

In 2010, about 23 percent of the black population had a felony conviction. The number of African-American felons increased more than fivefold between 1980 and 2010, while the number increased threefold for other felons. The University of Georgia study did not calculate separate rates for Hispanics or other minority groups.

In left-leaning states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon, one contributor to the growing share of the population with a felony conviction was an increased awareness of new crimes like domestic violence, sexual abuse and animal abuse, said Josh Marquis, a district attorney in Oregon and a 20-year board member of the National District Attorneys Association.

When crime is a major concern in a community, elected district attorneys are especially sensitive to public pressure to file more felony charges, Marquis said. “We are not rewarded for the number of felonies filed,” Marquis said. “But we do face election and accountability to our neighbors who are also our bosses.”

January 3, 2018 at 01:04 PM | Permalink


Part of the problem is the total blurring of the line between "felony" and "misdemeanor", and in order to look tough legislators are enacting more "felony" offenses. Like breaking into a coke machine the second time, or stalking twice. Or littering over 500 pounds, submitting a false affidavit for a driver's license. Or taking shellfish out of season. Or stealing pine straw.

When I started things were simple. If you were convicted of a crime that carried over two years in the department of corrections it was a felony. If the possible sentence was less than two years it was a misdemeanor and you did your time in the county jail. Now, we have on the books felonies for which a first time offender can't receive a single day of incarceration and misdemeanors that can carry up to three years in prison.

It is simply irrational and a far cry from the origin of the two words. Felony comes from Old French "villainous" and some one commits a misdemeanor if they "misbehave."

A world gone mad.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Jan 3, 2018 5:00:28 PM

I would note several potential features leading to the increase in felonies.

First, recidivist statutes. While there is a long history of such statutes bumping up misdemeanors to felony, my perception is that in recent years the number of such statutes have increased -- mostly in response to press coverage of certain types of offenses which are particular prone to offenders with a long history (e.g., driving while revoked).

Second, inflation creep. Many statutes distinguish felonies from misdemeanor based on the value of the item stolen/damaged. Legislatures tend to forget about these statutes. As prices increase (and admittedly inflation has been historically low for the past twenty years, but it has not been non-existent), it takes fewer of a specific type of item to cross the line into a felony offense. If a state has not altered its threshold since 1980, prices have more than tripled. Even going back to 2000, prices have increased by almost 50%.

Third, fad crimes. Every year, there is some "isn't that awful" story in the news. Reporters will note that the "bad act" is not clearly covered by any law. In response, the legislature passes a new law to cover that crime, and, to show that they are tough, the new crime is almost always a felony (or a current misdemeanor is bumped up to a felony to show that the legislature will not tolerate this awful act. (My hunch is that most of these things are not a significant source of the increase in felonies.)

Fourth, the time frame coincides with the changes to the drug laws in the late 80's. My hunch says that if you did one group for those with a non-drug felony and a separate group for those with a drug felony (recognizing that some individuals fits into both categories) that there would be significantly more growth in the number of people with a felony record for drug offenses as compared to the number of people with a felony record for non-drug offenses.

Posted by: tmm | Jan 3, 2018 6:16:38 PM


you are correct on all points.

I particularly agree that recidivism is driving a lot of the increased number of felonies, illegally in my opinion.

During oral arguments in US v Johnson, both Justice Scalia and Justice Stevens asked whether the Supreme Court had ever approved "kicking up" misdemeanors to felonies due to recidivism. The answer is "no" and actually in 1901 the Court held in McDonald v Massachusetts that prior convictions increase the punishment for a crime, not increasing the level of crime.

In other words, Almendarez Torres still lives and I am okay with that with a few exceptions. Such as a prior conviction obtained AFTER the date of offense should not increase the punishment above what was in effect on the date of offense.

The worst example of this phenomenon is the way that the prosecution can convert a murder that was noncapital when committed to capital when tried. By trying and convicting the def of a pending crime of violence before trying the def for murder. The State then uses the new conviction as an aggravating factor to get a death sentence, even though such sentence was impossible as of the date of the offense.

I am fighting all of these recidivist issues are hard as I can.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Jan 4, 2018 6:10:29 AM

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