Civil Liberties

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.