Wednesday, December 21, 2011

America Has Now Reached “Peak Imprisonment”

Despite our supposed love of individual liberty, America has long been known for having by far the highest incarceration rates among the world’s developed nations. Some would argue that this is a good thing, as shown by the country having 20 years of continually declining crime rates. More criminals in jail = less crime on the streets. That just makes sense, they would argue. But it also comes at the terrible price of non-violent drug offenders being incarcerated for long periods, as well as the tremendous monetary cost to the taxpayers of housing such a large percentage of our adult population as wards of the state.

Not surprisingly, as the ravages of the Great Recession continue to hammer governmental budgets at every level, the states and even the federal government are becoming less inclined to place people behind bars and to keep them there for long periods of time. Here is the Economist with the details:
IN AMERICAN slang, to send someone "up the river" means to send him to prison. The phrase comes from New York, specifically, from Sing Sing prison, which is around 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. I visited a couple of years ago, and was struck by the beautiful views the inmates had of the Hudson River Valley. Some local politicians think the views are wasted on convicts, and have suggested replacing the maximum-security prison with condos. Perhaps it comes as some comfort to them knowing that there are fewer convicts on whom those views are wasted. In 2000 it housed 2,300 prisoners; today around 1,700 are imprisoned there. Crime rates have fallen and drug laws changed in New York; both have resulted significant declines in the state's prison population. And its governor, Mario Cuomo, plans to close some prisons to close budget gaps. After all, prison is expensive: according to a Pew report, states spent between $13,009 (Louisiana) and $44,860 (Rhode Island) in 2005 per prisoner per year. Total state spending on corrections now runs around $52 billion.

But that figure may be falling. According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2010 America’s prison population declined year-on-year for the first time in nearly four decades. There were 1,605,127 prisoners behind bars in state and federal correction facilities in 2010, 9,228 fewer than in 2009. Although that is less than a percentage point decrease, it is still significant. Half of the states reported decreases in prison populations, with Rhode Island and Georgia (where one in 13 adults is under some form of correctional control, one of the highest proportions in the country) reporting the largest percentage decreases, 8.6% and 7.9% respectively. There were some increases, most notably Illinois, which saw the largest increase in absolute numbers, followed by Texas. But the largest percentage increase in the state prison population was in Iowa, up 7.3%, followed by Illinois, up 7.2%.

The imprisonment rate is also down. The rate last year was about one in 201 residents. Since 2007, when it peaked at 506 per 100,000 residents, the imprisonment rate has declined each year. Illinois reported the largest rate increase, while it fell in 33 states. About one-third of admissions result from parole violations. Surveillance has been a key component in correction supervision since the 1980s. Consequently, parole violations caused a seven-fold increase in people returning to prison from 1980 to 2000. In 2009 parole violators accounted for a third of all state prison admissions, but this sort of admission declined last year, thanks in part no doubt because of the efforts made at the state, local and federal level to lower recidivism rates. According to a Pew report, 43% of offenders are returned to state prison within three years of their release.

Also encouraging is the news that releases from prison exceeded admissions in 2010 for the first time since 1977. This means that many prisons are not operating at full capacity.
I just want to pause for a moment to point out that there is a significant typographical error in one of the stated figures in the article. Surely, the imprisonment rate number included in the second sentence of the third paragraph above should read “501” and not “201,” because otherwise that would mean that more than half of the entire prison population had been released during the past four years, which is obviously not the case.

Even so, just a slight drop in the imprisonment rate from 506 to 501 after rising steadily since the 1970s is significant given the proliferation in recent years of private “for profit” prisons and that no politician these days would ever allow themselves to be seen as soft on “law and order.” One of the most obvious backlashes against the counterculture movement of the 1960s was in the area of law enforcement as a “throw away the key” mentality took hold in the minds of what Richard Nixon called “the silent majority.” Given that the peaking of the imprisonment rate perfectly coincides with the start of the economic downturn and the plunging of state and federal tax revenues, I have no doubt that the real reason for the decline is tied to the bad economy rather than any increase in empathy and compassion for inmates.

How ironic is it that the prison population is actually decreasing at a time when one would have thought that with an increasingly desperate population it would be exploding? Of course, as I previously reported here on this blog, other than in some unfortunate locations like Camden, New Jersey, the national crime rate has also counter intuitively continued to drop since 2008 despite so many more people having been flung into poverty as the Great Recession grinds on. Whatever the reason for this drop, it’s an interesting conundrum to ponder as it doesn’t seem to fit with trends forecaster Gerald Celente’s repeated assertion that “when people lose everything, they lose it.”

Bonus: Seems like an appropriate time for this song


  1. Budgets. Prisoners cost money.

    Expect more prisoners, especially non-violent offenders and especially in states without 3-strikes or mandatory sentencing, to be released. This is probably a generally good thing, as the US criminal justice system is completely fucked up (being not swift, sure, fair or measured) and currently incarcerates way too many people who simply don't really belong behind bars. If the economy forces states to start imprisoning only those people that are actually dangerous, that might actually be a mild silver lining.

    That said, the result of letting more people out of prison during a down economy is probably pretty predictable. With no jobs for college graduates and the long-term unemployed, I'm guessing that having a record is probably not a quick ticket to gainful employment. job, no money, leads to... recidivism.

    Over time, if the economy stays bad, you will have an interesting (at the objective observer level, at the human level it's tragic) situation in which the state is trying to reduce numbers but the economy forces ever more people to break the rules to get by. At some point, something has to give. Either the courts stop convictions, sentencing changes (forced community service, road gangs, etc.), or enforcement/prosecutions of minor offenses slows down. Or, money is transferred from social programs to prison building as part of conservative "get-tough" backlash. Now, this kind of thing is probably a longer term effect than what we have so far experienced, but simply look at the Great Depression for an example. If things stay bad for a long time, or get much worse, these kinds of problems will almost certainly come to pass.

  2. The US "injustice system" is a farce, joke, and complete embarrassment. Jon Corzine is a free man, yet terminal cancer patients who grew marijuana for treatment are behind bars.

    Bush, Cheney, Obama, Biden: all of them should be in prison for murder, genocide, and crimes against humanity. They are all vile pieces of subhuman excrement.

  3. Heh. You excerpted the article before the Economist fixed its piece. NYS's governor is *Andrew* Cuomo, not Mario.

  4. as long as there is big money to be made locking people up, that will be a lot of people locked up.
    Private business needs to get out of the prison business.
    good piece Mr. Bill. :D

  5. @Thrivalista - funny, they correct Cuomo's first name but not that rather glaring statistical error I cited.