Prisons

Incarceration Nation

|

Ron Bailey beat me to the punch on the new Pew study showing that 1 in 99 American adults are behind bars.

A few thoughts:

It's a staggering figure that by far and away leads the world, both in the total number and in the percentage of the population in prison.

And while there's certainly some truth to the theory that throwing lots of people in jail is in part responsible for the drop in violent crime over the last 15 years, the story's a bit more complicated than that. As the Washington Post explains in the article linked above, a state like Florida, which has been giddily locking people up for two decades, has experienced only a slight drop in crime over that period. New York, on the other hand, has experienced a substantial drop in crime since the early 1990s, but the state's prison population is the lowest its been in 15 years.

The violent crime rate has also inched back upward the last few years, even as prison populations have continued to soar.

Strangely enough, the Washington Post story on the study says (correctly, I think) that we're finally starting to see reform in sentencing law, as well as some consternation from elected officials about our shamefully high incarceration levels. But not because our political leaders are suddenly concerned about civil rights, or the humanity of keeping one percent of the country in lockup. It's more because supporting a prison system that's bursting at the seams has become a drain on state budgets.

Whatever it takes, I guess. It'll also be interesting to see what happens when the nonviolent drug offenders we locked up in the 1980s with mandatory minimums start getting released.

NEXT: Vernon's Mickey

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. 1/9 = percentage of black males 20-34 incarcerated = proportion of state employees nationwide employed in corrections (when they aren’t shaming us at abu ghraib)

  2. How can incarceration rates drop when they keep making new laws?

  3. Is all the world jails and churches?

  4. If the folks I went to high school with are “average”, 25 are in prison right now.

    A-frigging-mazing.
    I think we have a problem.

  5. Sociologist James Q. Wilson, who in the 1980s helped develop the “broken windows” theory that smaller crimes must be punished to deter more serious ones… However, Wilson disagreed that the rise in the U.S. prison population should be considered a cause for alarm: “The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country.”

    I guess ideologues will go to their death believing their theories, even in the face of contrary statistics. How many lives has Wilson helped ruin. The fact that China ranks below the US is quite disturbing.

  6. I’ll play Devil’s advocate on this a little: Maybe America is more efficient at apprehending, processing and incarcerating criminals than other nations? Obviously, out of 300 million Americans there are still criminals wandering around. I don’t think measuring the ratio of Americans in prison is the right measure: we should be measuring how many free criminals there are in society vs behind bars.

    Comparing 1-in-100 Americans behind bars vs .5 for Britain (I’m making this up) is not a valid comparison if the average American commits more crimes.

  7. GE,

    I think the problem is that America has too many crimes on the books, and the sentences for those crimes are too long, particularly for nonviolent and consensual crimes.

  8. Seriously, what is up with the people who comment here who can’t make the observation that laws are not uniform across every country in the world? A country who criminalizes relatively harmless behavior is likely to have higher incarceration rates, but not necessarily more scumbags. I’m not saying this is definitely the only explanation, but come on!

    Derrr.

  9. ok, I should have used the preview button, and would have seen that Balko said it better.

  10. Where’s my hap tip, Balko?

    Do we need to add plagiarism to the list of Reasonoid gripes?

    Just kidding, keep on it, you’re doing important work.

  11. Four words point the way to a better nation:

    Repeal the drug laws!

  12. Reinmoose,

    I appreciate the sentiment, but Russia, China, Britain, and Sweden have drug prohibition, too.

  13. The fact that China ranks below the US is quite disturbing.

    While this story is shocking and horrible, I doubt China is reporting accurate numbers on this.

    As far as being, at minimum, the worst of the free, honest societies, well… that sucks…

  14. I hope this story gets LOTS of play. It’s one of the most overlooked political issues. One more example of the failure of conservatism.

  15. but do they enforce their drug laws the same way in those other countries? are the penalties similar, and do they have mandatory minimum sentences? i wonder if the proportion of non-violent offenders in their prison populations are different, and how they approach the question of rehabilitation.

  16. Reinmoose,

    I appreciate the sentiment, but Russia, China, Britain, and Sweden have drug prohibition, too.

    Which is why I said:
    “I’m not saying this is definitely the only explanation”

  17. way to steal bailey’s thunder with a more recent thread balko!

  18. joe,

    Our sentences for drug “crimes” are longer.

  19. Radley,

    I was pointing out a different issue than our overly-strict drug laws, of which I agree with you.

    If country A and B had the same population, and equal numbers of murderers, rapists and thieves, comparing incarceration rates wouldn’t be valid. The question wouldn’t be “Why does Country A have so many more prisoners?” the question would be “Why doesn’t Country B do more to lock up its criminals?”

    In our case, America has a higher incarceration rate than Canada and Western European nations, but we also have a more violent populous (higher murder rate, property crimes, etc).

    If magically tomorrow our drug laws were repealed, and all non-violent drug offenders were released, we’d still have a higher incarceration rate.

  20. The fact that China ranks below the US is quite disturbing.

    Executing prisoners is an efficient way of reducing the overall prison population.

  21. This is terrific news. Lock em all up. Make them some grimier prisons too, spend less money… I’m sure some of these prisons are nicer than being homeless/below poverty.

  22. It’ll also be interesting to see what happens when the nonviolent drug offenders we locked up in the 1980s with mandatory minimums start getting released.

    I would think after spending their formative years in the company of a diverse assortment of sociopaths they will be nicely seasoned and many of them will be delighted to share their newfound skills with the rest of the population.

    The fact that any consensual adult behavior engaged in on private property is illegal shows the grip that puritans have over the nation’s legislatures 220 years after the U.S. Constitution told them to get a life.

  23. I think the problem is that America has too many crimes on the books, and the sentences for those crimes are too long, particularly for nonviolent and consensual crimes.

    You don’t even have to make new crimes. Zero-tolerance attitudes just lowers the threshold for the existing crimes. Like .15 BAC becomes .08 BAC.

  24. I would think after spending their formative years in the company of a diverse assortment of sociopaths

    Are you talking about prison, the police department, or public schools?

  25. I think the problem is that America has too many crimes on the books, and the sentences for those crimes are too long, particularly for nonviolent and consensual crimes.

    How true, and most people who believe in prohibition could still see that something is inherently wrong when selling your neighbor some pot gets you a longer prison term than killing him in many jurisdictions.

  26. I appreciate the sentiment, but Russia, China, Britain, and Sweden have drug prohibition, too.

    I cannot imagine any modern country allowing it’s citizens to use dangerous drugs. I think this is worldwide by the UN Single Convention treaty.

  27. We should follow China’s model and just kill people for minor “crimes”–then our stats will get better and the fucking Europeans can’t shake their heads at us. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

  28. The laws proscribing drugs, prostitution, gambling and other victimless “crimes” are not just.

    Shame on anyone who chooses to becomes a law enforcement officer knowing that they will have to enforce this barbarity.

  29. The fact that any consensual adult behavior engaged in on private property is illegal shows the grip that puritans have over the nation’s legislatures 220 years after the U.S. Constitution told them to get a life.

    The government has a right and in fact an obligation to protect morality.

    Zero-tolerance attitudes just lowers the threshold for the existing crimes.

    Anything that can help the police to keep us all off drugs is inherintly a good thing, I’m all for it.

    It’s more because supporting a prison system that’s bursting at the seams has become a drain on state budgets.

    All the more reason to have prisinors work. Prison should turn a profit.

    We are moving from an agricultural, to a industrial. to a service and finally to a prison based economy. We need slave labor to compete with the third world.

    Our sentences for drug “crimes” are longer.

    They are still a mere slap on the wrist compared to countries free from drugs, like Saudia Arabia and Sinkapore.

  30. The laws proscribing drugs, prostitution, gambling and other victimless “crimes” are not just.

    Shame on anyone who chooses to becomes a law enforcement officer knowing that they will have to enforce this barbarity.

    Those things are wrong, and have terible downstream effects on society. Don’t want to be in Jail OBEY THE LAW!!!

  31. Jaunita, you ignorant slut . . .

  32. Wait a second, EUROPEANS think it’s bad for our incarceration rates to be this high?

    Well, screw them! That means there isn’t a problem. Hooray!

  33. I wonder how many are on probation and have a record for a small amount of pot or having a couple beers and doing no harm?Their not in jail but their job status is ruined.I remember growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s near Ohio U.I sure many smoked pot but few were jailed[the teachers included].My dad worked at a local shoe factory and after work most men went to the bars.Dad would have a couple of beers and drive home.By todays standards all would be in criminals.

  34. Juanita,

    Are you kidding or are you a child?

    If neither, remember that it’s individual liberty that bequeaths the greatest benefit to society. Also, the harmful effects of the laws proscribing those “crimes” far out weigh any downside of the activities themselves

  35. Anything that can help the police to keep us all off drugs is inherintly (sp) a good thing, I’m all for it.

    Good thing the police are so good at that. Maybe they can help keep me off fast food, skydiving and other dangerous things.

  36. Is WAH-NEETA really Bill Bennett?

  37. Shame on anyone who chooses to becomes a law enforcement officer knowing that they will have to enforce this barbarity.

    Shame on bozos with simplistic, self-righteous views.

  38. ‘It’ll also be interesting to see what happens when the nonviolent drug offenders we locked up in the 1980s with mandatory minimums start getting released.”

    If prisoners were not violent when they went it, I am sure that they will be violent when they get out. Your government, in action.

  39. That’s right, Juanita. There is no drug or alcohol abuse in Saudi Arabia. Yep. There are no gay people there, either. Did you know that?

    They also don’t have VD or AIDS.

    Oh, what a utopian life the Saudis lead. Their women are chaste, their men are all pure-intentioned… oh I miss it so, my dear home in the desert.

    Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick, Juanita. You need to turn in your Troll Card – I’m charging you with Excessive Stupidity. Be glad we’re letting you live because, in Saudi Arabia, they take off your head for being so stupid.

  40. Rick, Juanita is a “performance artist” that has been haunting H&R on a regular basis for years. It is pointless to engage ‘her’ in any attempt at a discussion.

  41. If nothing at all was illegal, this little dilemma would fix itself.
    We don’t need no stinkin’ laws.

  42. I just like using her as a wall off which I can test my insults. You see, I’m not very good at slinging insults, and I need the practice.

    She’s such a sweetheart for offering herself up this way.

  43. I’m also an awful metaphor mixer.

    *hangs head in shame*

  44. I have to say that in the years I spent living overseas, this was far and away the single most embarrassing issue I got asked about. There was nothing to say to justify it in any way whatsoever. And it says something too that this is now being discussed as if it is in any way a new problem. It’s not. As bad as having more than one in every hundred citizens behind bars, the fact that we disenfranchise some of them for life even after they have done their time is an even blacker mark on our democracy. Stuff like this makes flag wavers look like total morons in my book. Hopefully this gets nudged up the list of things we (especially the libertarians among us) might like to re-examine. I have faith that if anyone can keep beating the drum on this, it’s Radley. Keep at it. About once a week as a friendly reminder would be nice. Something like a “Friday Fun Link for Those of Us Who Aren’t Incarcerated.”

  45. Or those of us who aren’t incarcerated YET

  46. Right-on pinko!

  47. The news this morning said the rate is 1 in 15 for black folks and 1 in 35 for hispanics.

    I’m also concerned about the ideas int he artcile about alternatives tio incarceration. I think fines resulting in garnished wages will become more prevalent.

  48. Great, looks like were gearing up for another repeat of the ’60’s and ’70’s were intellectual experts will tell us that they can reform criminals by talking to them. Criminals and their victims will be dehumanized as mere mindless atoms in the gas of society. We will be told we can nothing about crime until we first fix every conceivable social inequality in the world. Cities will become war zones again. Boy, I can’t wait. Dibs on front row at the first Dirty Harry remake!

    Locking up a large number of criminals in prisons is absolutely the worse solution to crime, save all the others. We’ve experimented extensively with alternate methods and they don’t work.

  49. Troubling numbers.

    “It’ll also be interesting to see what happens when the nonviolent drug offenders we locked up in the 1980s with mandatory minimums start getting released.”

    What do the powers-that-be expect? What is anyone to do who just spent a decade or two in prison and now stands in front of the gate with nothing, nowhere to go, just some probation requirements designed to send him straight back to jail? Perhaps that’s exactly what they do expect.

    I wonder, though, perhaps US crime policies do keep society more orderly. Contrast the UK where people are ruthlessly prosecuted for political incorrectness, but the real everyday street-level hooligans are allowed to act out with impunity.
    See here for just one example.
    Or a UK policeman’s blog, another source for how screwed up things can get.

  50. Uh huh. It’s the people who think that incarceration rates are too HIGH who are dehumanizing people.

  51. We can just hire (without pay) all the prisoners as prison guards. That will help keep this level of incarceration sustainable. They can just rotate as to who the guards are this week.

  52. MK2:

    Shame on bozos with simplistic, self-righteous views.

    Shame on MK2. He/She employs tantrum rather than argument.

  53. The UK is at a more advanced stage of the disease than we are – their prisons are now simply full. There’s a great deal of hand-wringing and hair-pulling in progress, although I believe the root cause – an escalating cycle of ‘tough on crime’ legislation that progressively locks away more people for doing less – is generally, if grudgingly, acknowledged.

    And the British have reached this realisation despite an incarceration rate that is less than a fifth that of the United States’… so yes, some Europeans are ahead of us on this issue. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any civilised country in the world that isn’t.

  54. Shannon,
    Let me take a crack at this: How about not criminalizing their behavior in the first place? As in the case of non-violent drug use and not legalization per se because I know that that seems to be off the table in the U.S., how about knocking personal drug use down on the priority list to, say, the level of jaywalking? Anything from keeping your scary sixties hallucinations from coming back and keeping those scary lefty intellectuals who like to pursue non-violent and non-coercive means at bay. Honestly, you have no sympathy whatsoever for someone doing hard time for a non-violent drug offense? I’m guessing no, but it helps to know who those of us who still give a shit are up against.

  55. kinnath,

    Thanks. I’ve been here for years too and I guess I do recall her.

    I probably get sucked into worthless debates too often. One time in a thread here, I discovered that I was having a discussion with one of those conversation bots!

  56. I can cope with Juanita when ‘she’ posts as Juanita. It’s when ‘she’ uses alternative handles that ‘she’ pisses me off.

  57. Gee, I wonder what those prisoners did to deserve to be imprisoned?

  58. In the 1920’s Babe Ruth was a hero and getting drunk every night.My grandfather made moonshine and even the local sheriff was a customer.Today the cops smash in doors to arrest people growing a plant and haul before congress players who take drugs to help them heal and play better.Enough said.

  59. Michael Pack:

    Indeed! And on top of that threaten to prosecute them for “lying to Congress”.

    The magnitude of the legislators’ power trip is staggering!

  60. I agree that extensive drug decriminalization needs to occur, and that non-violent drug offenders should not be behind bars.

    However, I decline to join the larger sentiment that having criminals behind bars in general is somehow shameful. When criminals are behind bars, they are not on the street committing crimes against law abiding citizens.

    So 1% of the US population is behind bars. What is the correct or desirable number? 0.5%? 0.05%? 0%?

    I argue that all violent criminals should be behind bars, whatever that number is.

    Britain hardly imprisons anyone any more, and real public menaces are given “Anti Social Behavior Orders” which mean nothing. The level of victimization of the average citizen in the UK is much higher than here. Perhaps they need to imprison more criminals.

  61. “Shame on bozos with simplistic, self-righteous views.”

    Hope, audacity, change…

  62. consensual crimes.

    I’ll show you my gaping shotgun wound if you show me yours.

  63. Pinko,

    How about not criminalizing their behavior in the first place?

    That would be nice but if you read the report, that’s not what Pew is suggesting. There talking about going back to the fail rehabilitation methods of the 60’s and 70’s.

    Even if we do legalize drugs (which I support) I don’t think we’ll seem much of drop in crime. Firstly, a lot of people sent up for minor drug offenses are usually life long petty criminals. They get long sentences for drugs because of their previous records. The minor drug offense that results in a long sentences is just the last thing they got caught for. Second, most of the people who really pile up the man hours in prison are there for violent offenses. The total man hours won’t drop much. Third, drug addiction renders people dysfunctional and they have to turn to crime to support themselves. If drugs are easily available we might end up with more criminals because we would have more dysfunctional people.

    For the last 150 years we’ve had successive waves of penal reform all without much effect. Recidivism rates are roughly the same as they were a hundred years ago. We don’t have, and probably shouldn’t seek, to have the power to re-engineer peoples minds.

  64. Shannon,

    I think the strongest argument about drug reform reducing crime is that significantly reducing the criminal black market will entice fewer people to become career criminals, and will allow drug “entrepreneurs” to do their business and settle their greivances within the law.

  65. I think the strongest argument about drug reform reducing crime is that significantly reducing the criminal black market will entice fewer people to become career criminals, and will allow drug “entrepreneurs” to do their business and settle their greivances within the law.

    Not to mention removing the risk premium that the black market adds to the price of its goods and obviating the need to commit crimes to procure drugs in the first place.

  66. Joe,I think your right.After all,the 18th amendment helped create Al Capone and others.Also,when you have laws that are so broad a large portion of the country ignores them many have less respect for other laws.During the 1920’s it was hard to get a jury to find a bootlegger guilty.Why,because they were in fact criminals themselves as far as alcohol was concerned.I’d say many feel that way about the income tax laws today.

  67. And to add to all of that above, Shannon, if we spent 1/10 the money on drug rehabilitation and preventing addiction that we spend on prohibition, we’d have less of a drug problem than we do now.

    Also, wacky idea: why don’t we let people do what they want by and to themselves, and let the government only start worrying about it when they directly threaten or harm other people?

  68. Michael Pack,

    I’d put laws that restrict peaceful people from immigrating in the same category.

    It’s a guy moving to a new city to get a better job. Eveybody does that. When you turn the police on ordinary people doing ordinary things, ordinary people who do ordinary things are going to turn on the police.

    That’s why, while the health and safety effects of peyote are no worse than those of smoking pot, laws against mescaline are less unreasonable than laws against marijuana.

    Not that I wouldn’t repeal both, if given the chance. Just prioritizing.

  69. Joe,I agree.I’ve done things much more dangerous than drugs.I’ve raced bikes,rock climbed,done whitewater[class 5 and 6] and duck hunted in 4 foot waves on the Great Lakes.I have no idea how I’m still alive.

  70. Isn’t “Class Six” basically having somebody throw you off a cliff with a boat strapped to your back?

  71. “Even if we do legalize drugs (which I support) I don’t think we’ll seem much of drop in crime. Firstly, a lot of people sent up for minor drug offenses are usually life long petty criminals. They get long sentences for drugs because of their previous records. The minor drug offense that results in a long sentences is just the last thing they got caught for. Second, most of the people who really pile up the man hours in prison are there for violent offenses. The total man hours won’t drop much. Third, drug addiction renders people dysfunctional and they have to turn to crime to support themselves. If drugs are easily available we might end up with more criminals because we would have more dysfunctional people.”

    Shannon,
    First, where do get this information from? Do just assume this is true?
    Second, as swillfredo points out, many drug users resort to crime to get drugs in the first place- you know, the high-price, high-risk of using drugs.
    Third, you say you support legalizing drugs but yet you conclude that doing so would only bring about more crime and more dysfunctional people. Based on your own conclusion, how could you say you support legalizing drugs?

  72. Joe,most.We shot the upper Gully in WV while in food stage.Sweets Falls was a 14 ft drop that day.I must admit though,being in a 18 ft. boat in 15 degree temps. wearing waders and heavy clothes and 2 dogs and gear and heavy waves is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.

  73. Food Stage?

    Hillbillies were trying to eat you?

    I’d jump off a cliff, too.

  74. The wholesale legalization of drugs and other (oh god, not that) pleasurable activities would have to go hand in hand with a great national campaign on personal responsibility. We, as a nation, have been breeding for at least a couple generations a society of folks that is unwilling to take care of themselves. From Katrina to McDonalds coffee burns we can see examples of a complete lack independant behaviour. If we want to live free of all these government regulations, we have to get everyone to let go of the government teat.
    There are so many voters that are willing to lay in their own feces and wait for uncle sam to pull them out. Adjustable rate mortgage anyone? The government is only too willing to give them that hand out.
    We find ourselves at the lower end of that slippery slope in the WOD.I got nothin against a a cold beer. Or a good sip of shine. Or some good bud to start a day off right. Or even a sojourn to meet Mescalito. And historically it seems that most drug laws were enacted for very dubious reasons. But as a result of those laws and other stupid things from our representatives, we have a real bucket of shit here now.
    I think maybe drug legalization and welfare reform and tort reform go hand in hand. And when we return these felons to society, maybe it should be with a real shot at a return to society. not a couple hundred bucks and a bus ticket home.

  75. The wholesale legalization of drugs and other (oh god, not that) pleasurable activities would have to go hand in hand with a great national campaign on personal responsibility.

    Never happen, most pleasurable activities are wrong and immoral, which is why they are ilegal.

  76. Sorry Joe,flood stage.

  77. “Even if we do legalize drugs (which I support) I don’t think we’ll seem much of drop in crime.”

    Shannon,
    Actually, by definition, according to your statement, we will definitely see a reduction in crime. And we will see a reduction in not only the crimes we just removed from the statutes, but the whole crimes that tend to follow in their wake. We’ll be left just with the crimes that always get overemphasized, the occasional nutjob that ingests or smokes too much crack, pcp, acid, whatever you like, and does real harm. Those people will be locked up for commiting violent crimes.

    You are according way too much “good faith” to the criminal justice system here. I wonder then, why you don’t just attribute “good faith” across the board when the government does anything. When something so blatantly dangerous and repugnant to “liberty” like this recent study gets giftwrapped for you, why don’t you brandish your liberatarian bona fides for everyone to see and condemn the situation? What you are doing, instead, is confirming the suspicion that libertarians only seem to wake up and snap to attention only when a white guy somewhere is inconvenienced. And just to head you off at the pass, there are several nasty race issues buried in all of this regarding arrests, convictions, sentencing rates, and disenfranchisement, so do me a favor and don’t play stupid. It’s all a shame, really, this missed opportunity.

  78. I still don’t understand the ‘if we legalize drugs it will cause more crime’ thinking.I’d say most thefts are for things other than drugs.How about Nike shoes,cell phones or a summer home for a congressman?If all laws were based on property rights[#1 you own yourself] and harm against said property, we could cover everything from theft and murder to pollution and dui laws.It’s to simple to to pass of course.

  79. MP:

    If you look at Bureau of Justice stats they lump alcohol and drug-related crimes in one and lump together “drug-related” crimes with crimes committed under the influence.

  80. It’s more a racial problem than anything else. If you leave out all but Caucasians and [non-cauc] Asians, the USA isn’t an outlier in incarceration.

  81. I can’t understand how anyone could look at those figures and still believe that we live in a free country. Are people so naive as to think that all of those prisoners are really guilty?

  82. Shame on bozos with simplistic, self-righteous views.

    Shame on MK2. He/She employs tantrum rather than argument.

    ???

    I was merely parroting the bozo’s original formulation.

  83. Hi. Just wanted to let you know that we used one of your articles for our show today on moblogic.tv (http://www.moblogic.tv/video/2008/03/13/one-out-of-a-hundred/).

    Here’s the link to our blog post. (http://www.moblogic.tv/blog/2008/03/13/were-number-1/).

    We’d love it if you checked it out. Please let us know what you think (good or bad). Your opinion means a lot to us.

    Thanks!
    Amanda Elend
    moblogic.tv

  84. After the criminal trial, the issue still stood that Wecht used county resources. Since a jury decided Wecht did not have criminal intent in the use of the resources, basically decided he did not intend to embezzle funds, the issue remained that Wecht still had to compensate the county for using county resources. In the subsequent civil proceedings
    http://www.mirei.com

  85. Valuable information and excellent design you got here! I would like to thank you for sharing your thoughts and time into the stuff you post!! Thumbs up
    San Antonio Roofing Contractor

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.