Is Mass Incarceration Inevitable? Part 1. What's the Problem?

Why we should care about mass incarceration.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The discussion in this post is excerpted from Andrew Leipold, Is Mass Incarceration Inevitable? 56 American Criminal Law Review 1579 (2019).

We've all read the headlines.  America incarcerates the most people, and does so at the highest rate, of any country in the world.  In 2017 there were 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons and another 745,000 in jail.  This means that the U.S. incarcerates at a rate that is 5-6 times higher than countries like Germany, the U.K., and France, and has a higher number of inmates than the reported figures for China and Russia.  The U.S. numbers also are dramatically large when compared to our own history, as the prison population increased more than 700% since the early 1970s.  Small wonder that "mass incarceration" is now the standard label to describe the state of U.S. corrections.

Despite the gloomy big picture, there are some reasons for optimism.  States—which house almost all the inmates—are well aware of the situation, and some have been impressively active (and even more impressively, bipartisan) in addressing it.  Many states have created criminal reform commissions whose goal is to reduce the incarceration rates, and over the last few years there has been a modest to significant drops in the number of people behind bars, although the numbers are still high.  (Reports on state efforts can be found here, here, and here).

Targets of reform vary, but there are some usual suspects: efforts to reduce the prison population often focus on reducing mandatory minimums, reducing the sentences for certain drug crimes, and modifying 3-strikes laws.  Efforts to reduce jail populations are increasingly targeting bail decisions and the effect of money bail on keeping poor arrestees behind bars.

But while the recent decline in prison populations is real, there are also reasons to wonder.  Given the size of the U.S. inmate population and the extremely high rate at which we put people behind bars, will any reform efforts be enough to shed the "mass incarceration" label?

Over the next few posts I will be discussing this question, and (to cut to the chase) conclude that the answer is, sadly, no.  There are both obvious and subtle barriers to reducing the inmate population to levels, ones that range from difficult to near-impossible to overcome.  The size of the problem, the difficulties posed by violent crime, and the under-appreciated financial costs of reform all conspire to make it likely that any change will be marginal rather than dramatic.  This series of posts will conclude with some suggestions on how we might approach these barriers, even if there are no guarantees that they will be overcome.

But before turning to the problems, two preliminary points:

1. Maybe this whole exercise is misguided. People are in prison (mostly) because they commit crimes, and so we might view incarceration simply as the inevitable byproduct of crime, prosecution, and conviction. Stated differently, maybe we don't have a mass incarceration problem, maybe we have a "mass criminality" problem, one that is more deserving of our attention.

Interestingly, both advocates and skeptics of efforts to reduce incarceration rates cite the intersection of imprisonment and crime rates to support their views.  Reformers argue that while the crime rate has been steadily dropping since the mid-1990s, incarceration rates continued to climb for another 15 years—surely proof that as a society, we have simply become more punitive.  Skeptics respond that of course crime declined while incarceration rates increased: that's the whole point.  Whatever its other flaws, prison incapacitates those who are the most likely to engage in future crime, making mass incarceration a feature, not a bug.

The relationship between crime and incarceration rates is complex, and to wildly over-simplify the research, it appears that:

  • Increased incarceration rates have had a meaningful effect on reducing crime, particularly in the early years of rapid prison growth. It is hard, however, to fix precisely the size of this effect.
  • The continued high incarceration rates seem to provide a vanishingly small return in terms of crime reduction. As the National Research Council put it, "The incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.  Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation."

Still, regardless of the inefficiency, we know that prisons work to some degree as a tool of incapacitation, making it tempting to swing our focus away from incarceration (the symptom) and toward criminality (the disease).  But we shouldn't.  Even if we can't solve the prison problem without tackling the crime problem, there are still reasons to address the high levels of incarceration, because if we don't, we miss the central point of the reform efforts.

Reformers argue that the status quo has two related problems.  First, we now incarcerate a huge number of inmates unnecessarily—we keep too many people locked up and for too long who pose little statistical risk of reoffending, people who could be adequately sanctioned without incapacitative effect of prison.  (Note that this argument does not come to grips with the retributive role that prison plays, a huge topic that requires a separate discussion.)  Second, incarcerating people who do not pose a risk to society does affirmative harm: low-risk inmates who spend too much time around high-risk inmates become worse off, reducing their chances of successfully reentering society once they are released.  It is worth our efforts to identify these people, regardless of the levels of crime in society.

2. It is shortsighted to discuss incarceration without acknowledging its intersection with race and poverty. The percentage of African Americans behind bars is substantially greater than their percentage of the population, a situation that has been true for decades. The high percentage of criminal defendants who poor has a similarly long history.

The merger of prison-reduction efforts with efforts to reduce the disproportionate effect on race and class raises wickedly complex questions.  We might assume that reducing the prison population would inevitably benefit minorities and the poor, because currently they are so overrepresented among the incarcerated.  But what if the reform efforts were to make the imbalance worse?  Suppose, for example, that in looking for people who don't really "need" to be behind bars, we decide that those who commit corporate offenses should qualify.  If this reform would disproportionately help the wealthy and increase the ratio of poor inmates, is it still a good idea?

Not surprisingly, I don't have solutions that will untangle the threads of incarceration, race, and poverty.  But it is important when thinking about change to keep in mind the moral and political implications of these moves, and to remember that the "incarceration problem" is just as subject to the law of unintended consequences as every other reform effort.

In the next post, we'll begin at the beginning and ask what we mean by mass incarceration, and then look at some numbers to decide if there is any realistic hope of shedding that label.

Advertisement

NEXT: The Inspector General, General Services Administration, Refuses to Acknowledge Her Plain Error About the Domestic Emoluments Clause

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. Too many people are in jail for things like drugs, but not enough people are in jail for violence. Sentences for violent crime are shorter than most members of the public think — far shorter — and criminals often go on to commit violent crimes or even murder after having previously been given probation or a short stint in jail for a prior violent crime:

    https://libertyunyielding.com/2019/10/04/mass-incarceration-or-under-incarceration/

    Even John Pfaff, the most outspoken advocate of cutting sentences, admits that sentences for violent crime are actually far shorter than ordinary people think they are (see his interview with Aaron Ross Powell & Trevor Burris of the Cato Institute).

    1. Drugs and violence are linked too closely for one to be ignored.

      1. Drugs and violence are not linked at all. Drug LAWS and violence are linked. Alcohol is more dangerous than many banned drugs, but you don’t see Valentine’s Day Massacres over it any longer.

  2. If we punished violent crime adequately, there would actually be many more people in jail for murder or other violent crimes. Only 30 percent of all murders of black people are ever solved, according to criminologist John Pfaff. If the other 70 percent were ever solved, due to improved law enforcement, a vast number of additional murderers would go to jail (more people are in jail for rape or murder than for all drug crimes combined). Taking crime against black people seriously ironically would increase the already disproportionate black arrest and conviction rate, because nine in ten black people who are murdered are murdered by another black person. Most murders of black people are committed by other black people. And the homicide rate is many times higher among blacks than whites. As the federal agency BJS notes, “Blacks are disproportionately represented as both homicide victims and offenders.”

    1. You’re assuming a lot with that adequately.

      And I’m not sure what the upshot of your black criminality screed is, other than as a whistle to summon WesternHegemony.

      1. I’m not sure what the point of your comment is, other than as a smear. My comment was not a “screed.” Rather, it provided useful context for why, as the post above notes, “The percentage of African Americans behind bars is substantially greater than their percentage of the population.” The primary reason for this, as the Bureau of Justice Statistics has noted, the black crime rate is higher than the white crime rate. Today, many progressives claim that there are no racial differences in crime rates, and that to even suggest otherwise is racism. But criminologists (even lefty criminologists) have long admitted that the crime rate is higher in the black community. And progressives used to admit that the black crime rate was higher due to family breakdown in the black community, including Obama himself. In 2008, Barack Obama was able to connect such lawlessness to family breakdown during a speech in Chicago. “Children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison.” In today’s political environment that truthful statement might be characterized as bigoted and insensitive. But it remains true, even if Obama himself later switched position and claimed that the higher black incarceration rate was due to racism (he implied that the fact that half of all incarcerated people were black or Hispanic was due to racism). Like many progressives, Obama abandoned reality, and switched his position on this issue, as part of progressives’ radicalization on racial issues known as the “Great Awokening.”

        1. My confusion stems from wondering what you are saying that’s new?

          Everyone agrees that there is more crime in the black community, as well as more incarceration; is there a policy upshot?

          I’m also not sure if ‘punished violent crime adequately’ means more incarceration.

          1. The policy upshoot is that given that there’s more crime, you can’t just presume the more incarceration part of that is actually a problem, rather than a reasonable response to a problem.

            1. How in the world does that follow? It looks to me like Bader is assuming incarceration lowers the crime rate, and going from there.

              1. Longer sentences do reduce crime. See this study, for example:
                https://www.nber.org/digest/oct98/w6484.html

                Even more important than sentence length is convicting criminals to begin with. The more criminals are convicted and put in prison, the more the crime rate goes down. Criminologists agree that crime clearance rates are even more important than sentence length in deterring crime.

        2. Today, many progressives claim that there are no racial differences in crime rates, and that to even suggest otherwise is racism.

          Perhaps you could provide an example of such a claim.

          1. I have been told this, face to face, by progressives. The Obama Justice Department’s Ferguson report seemed to assume as much. And the progressive-dominated U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently declared that there are no differences in behavior among black, white, and Asian students, even though black students are suspended at four times the rate of whites, and whites are suspended at four times the rate of Asians (arrest rates also differ dramatically by race; Asians are arrested and suspended at a much lower rate than whites, while blacks are arrested and suspended at a higher rate). As dissenting commissioner and law professor Gail Heriot pointed out, black students themselves admit to getting into fights at a higher rate than whites, as shown in survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The Commission’s majority, led by an aide to California’s governor, not only ignored this federal survey data, they cited my published article documenting the differences in behavior, and then rejected it, without any explanation. The Commission’s claim was too much for even liberal Washington Post reporter Laura Meckler, who sees racism almost everywhere. She noted in The Post that the Commission’s claim wasn’t supported by the sources it cited. See also Gail Heriot’s op-ed in the Washington Times debunking the Commisson’s claim: https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/jul/30/threatening-teachers-ability-control-their-classro/

            1. Heriot – is she back to being a Republican again? – addresses school misconduct, not crime rates, nor does she address the claim that black students are punished more severely than whites for the same behavior.

              1. As a general matter, black students are not punished more severely than whites for the same behavior. [See, e.g., John Paul Wright, Mark Alden Morgan, Michelle A. Coyne, Kevin M. Beaver, & J.C. Barnes, Prior problem behavior accounts for the racial gap in school suspensions, Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 42, issue 3, May-June 2014, Pages 257-266].

                There are exceptions. A Brookings Institution-backed study of Lousiana found a small but statistically-significant differences in punishments for inter-racial fights, but not for intra-racial fights, which were more numerous (it did not allege any discrimination for any other category of offense). That is, it did not find bias in most disciplinary actions. The disparities it did find did not account for more than a small portion of the black-white suspension gap, which is largely attributable to differences in misbehavior rates, not racism. There are other articles making claims of bias in school discipline, but unlike the Brookings researchers’ study, they failed to prove their assertion, because they essentially assumed their own conclusion, based on arbitrary assumptions, rather than properly taking race-neutral factors into account (or engaged in arbitrary classifications designed to artificially create the appearance of bias, like claiming obscenity is an “objective” offense, and threats a “subjective” offense, as the leading researcher claiming bias is prevalent absurdly did — he did this because blacks are more often disciplined for threats, while the rate of obscenity is fairly similar for blacks and whites, so he could disregard the differential threat rate in asserting that there are no differences in objective rates of misbehavior).

        3. Hans Bader : I’m not sure what the point of your comment is, other than as a smear.

          C’mon. Grow a pair. Being accused of racism by sarcastro is a playground insult. It means simply that he hasn’t got anything to offer by way of an actual, relevant, response. But he wishes to put a little stamp of his foot on the record.

          Your emotions are responding to the insult as if you’re being accused of being an actual racist, in the 1950s sense. In reality you’re just being accused of saying something sarcastro doesn’t like.

          1. I don’t just play the race card and jet off; I back up my concerns.

            Bader is arguing that more jail means less crime, and that blacks deserve to be in jail more than they currently are, for the sake of the black community.

            I leave it to you to work the implications and inferences there.

            1. I don’t just play the race card and jet off; I back up my concerns.

              Yes you do and no you don’t. You snipe while refusing to offer a target.

              Bader is arguing that more jail means less crime

              True

              and that blacks deserve to be in jail more than they currently are, for the sake of the black community.

              Entirely disingenuous. He’s claiming there are a lot of unsolved murders of black people, who were probably murdered by other black people (because most murders are in-race, because in-same neighborhood) and so if they were solved more black perps would be in prison.

              But there’s not a syllable that implies that if there were a similar rate of non solving of murders of white, brown, yellow or puce people, he would make a different argument. As usual you are just, to purloin your delightfully apt phrase, playing the race card and jetting off.

              FWIW I have my doubts about Bader’s analysis here. I think it likely that many of the unsolved murders of black victims are probably perpetrated by folk who get convicted of other murders, or at least other crimes. So I am not sure that a vast improvement in solving murders within black communities would proportionately increase the number of folk in prison.

              I leave it to you to work the implications and inferences there.

              As I have. You’re welcome.

      2. “And I’m not sure what the upshot of your black criminality screed is…”

        Sarcastro, the upshot is that people like you and I can oppose mass incarceration without assuming much risk. Isn’t it nice to be able to feel like we’re doing the right thing without putting ourselves at risk?

        1. I mean, that’s one of the neat parts about living in a republic.

          I do sometimes think about what would get my privileged and lazy ass out in the streets protesting.

    2. Iirc a big chunk of people in prison are there for drug offenses, a disproportionate amount of them are black but self report data suggests equal usage of drugs between blacks and whites.

      1. Drug use is not why most people are in jail. People tend to go to prison for drug dealing, not use of drugs. And all types of drug violations account for less than one-sixth of state inmates. Most state prisoners are there for violent crimes, not drug selling or use.

        1. One-sixth is still a very significant chunk.

          1. Moreover, saying that people are in jail for “drug dealing” is somewhat misleading. People can be classified as drug dealers based solely on possession in excess of a certain arbitrary amount.

        2. Wait a minute, Hans. Presumably sentences for violent crimes run longer than for most drug crimes. That affects your statistics, and the way they ought to be interpreted with regard to community experience of crime.

          Consider a momentary snapshot of the prison population which shows 84% violent criminals, and 14% non-violent drug criminals. That picture cannot be fully interpreted without comparing the lengths of each groups’ sentences. If the murderers get 30 years on average, and the drug criminals get 2 years on average, then that snapshot shows that the prison is taking in several times more drug criminals than murders. More murderers show up in the snapshot because each one stays much longer, not because there are more of them in society, or more of them going to prison.

          Even assuming identical conviction rates for both classes, the drug criminals, although more numerous in society, would be far less numerous in prison. That happens because at any given time, a much higher percentage of the previously-convicted drug criminals have left prison after completing short sentences, and returned to society.

  3. “It is shortsighted to discuss incarceration without acknowledging its intersection with race and poverty. The percentage of African Americans behind bars is substantially greater than their percentage of the population, a situation that has been true for decades. The high percentage of criminal defendants who poor has a similarly long history.”

    Crime rates in African American communities are, in many cases, much higher than elsewhere, and the people committing the crimes are, of course, representative of those communities. How can African Americans NOT be disproportionately jailed, if they’re disproportionately committing crimes? You’d have to racially discriminate in policing and sentencing to avoid it!

    Much the same can be said about the poor. A high percentage of criminal defendants are poor both because crime rates are high in poor communities, AND because crime does not generally pay well, meaning that people who rely on it for their incomes tend to be poor.

    The only way you’d avoid a disproportionate number of inmates being poor, would be by denying police protection to poor communities. Is this what you’re suggesting?

    1. Let us not forget “stupid” either. There’s a strong correlation between being dumb and finishing up inside.

      No doubt there’s a process element to this, as well as a failure to think through the consequences element. A dumb criminal is more likely to be caught than a smart one, and less likely to be able to talk his way out.

      A less punitive approach to sentencing would be a great boon to the stupid. If not their neighbors.

  4. Legalize drugs and let non-violent drug offenders out of prison with their records expunged. Lightly regulate and tax legal drug sales and use that money for treatment. Shut down all the police drug squads and transfer resources to solving violent crimes, as there’d be plenty of empty cells for the violent.

    1. What sort of statistical effect do you suppose these policies would have on incarceration rates?

  5. The only realistic solution to “mass incarceration” is to lower crime rates, which requires a coldly rational analysis of why the crime is taking place. I suspect most people concerned about “mass incarceration” don’t have the stomach for that.

    1. What’s your cold rational analysis of why crime is taking place?

      1. Cultural degeneration in areas of long term poverty, exacerbated by the war on drugs pumping a fortune into the criminal underclass. This has led to dramatic growth of urban gangs, which generates other, far less “victimless” crimes in the form of turf wars.

        The left can’t acknowledge the cultural problems behind these high crime rates, because the moral equivalence of all cultures has become something of an article of religious faith to them, and the last thing they can do is admit that welfare has destructive cultural effects. They’d probably call that “blaming the victim.”

        The right can’t acknowledge the degree to which the war on drugs has made the problem even worse by feeding so much money into urban gangs hired as “muscle” to protect black market enterprises outside the protection of the law.

        To really do anything about this, we need to do things both the left and the right won’t like. We need to end victimless crime laws, to stop pouring so much money into the criminal underclass. And we need to try to find some way to fix inner city culture, make it more like American culture in areas that are actually functional and peaceful.

        That last will be REALLY hard, not just in accepting that it needs to be done, but in execution, too.

        1. I don’t think the left’s idea here is that criminal subcultures are fine and dandy but that they are the result of economic deprivation (which includes discrimination). Young men who initially want to stick with their pregnant girlfriends walk when they can’t find jobs that would enable them to fulfill that role, that kind of thing.

          1. I’m not talking about criminal subcultures, but the larger cultures in which they can thrive. The sort of culture where a rap singer can be a success by looking like they’re the worst sort of criminal, for instance, instead of the criminals having to pretend to be law abiding.

            1. Is that like James Cagney becoming famous for playing gangsters or Johnny Cash for his outlaw country songs?

              Additionally, I don’t think liberals love ‘gangsta rap,’ the ones I’ve read on that tend to denounce it for it’s negative stereotypes, misogyny, materialism, and such.

              1. No, that’s not at all like James Cagney becoming famous for playing gangsters, because he didn’t actively encourage the idea that he WAS a gangster, let alone actually act criminally.

                Slightly more like Johnny Cash, but only slightly.

                1. The average gangster rapper plays such in their videos and songs, Cagney played a gangster in his films. Most people don’t know what they do or profess in their ‘actual’ lives.

                2. The Gangsta rappers of the 80s now act in family comedies.

  6. “Stated differently, maybe we don’t have a mass incarceration problem, maybe we have a “mass criminality” problem, one that is more deserving of our attention.”

    Or maybe a mass criminalization problem. Too many things have been turned into crimes.

    1. Like what?

      1. Any/all drug crimes.

        Being too poor to pay fines.

        Structuring.

        In-short, we can all agree that in most cases non-consensual violence should be a crime. Where we start to differ is what non-violent actions should also be crimes.

        1. How many people do you think are in prison for structuring?

          I don’t disagree that overcriminalization is a problem, but the high incarceration rate isn’t from locking up a bunch of people for making unauthorized Woodsy Owl representations or whatever.

          1. Sorry, my mistake. I thought I was answering a sincere question, not an attempt to steal a goal post.

            It’ll probably happen again.

  7. If we have zero people incarcerated, crime is maximum. If 100% of the population is in prison, there is 0% crime on the streets (no people on the streets either 🙂 Occam’s Razor demands a bias toward the simplest possible explanation. In this case, that the relationship between incarceration and crime is a straight line.

    Any other explanation is extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. I believe you that justice reform would be better, but the burden of extraordinary proof is daunting.

    >>”(Note that this argument does not come to grips with the retributive role that prison plays, a huge topic that requires a separate discussion.)” <<

    Are you going to make conclusions first, and have that separate discussion later? It is a social contract. Crime victims abstain from vigilantism in exchange for the justice system providing satisfactory retribution on their behalf. Americans are very independent. If government fails at this social contract, Americans are likely to take it into their own hands.

    1. That raises an interesting idea. We tend to think only in terms government or no government, but there are intermediate solutions that could be tried. One would be to partially decriminalize drug dealing by delegating the authority to determine whether a crime has been committed, and whether arrest and prosecution are warranted, to local areas, defined by the prevalence of drug crimes. Elected panels of local residents would be first instance of hearings, and would decide whether offenses should be referred to formal legal authorities. They could further be allocated resources for local treatment and education. With more resources and better tools, local communities could be a first-instance step to reduce both crimes and incarcerations.
      PS, annorlunda needs two n’s — you committed a crime, go to jail, do not pass go, and don’t collect 200 SEK.

      1. >>PS, annorlunda needs two n’s — you committed a crime, go to jail, do not pass go, and don’t collect 200 SEK.<<

        You have a sharp eye my friend. Annorlunda means different. I spell it a different way as anorlunda. It is a self referential pun.

  8. In Mass Incarceration Inevitable?
    Is Mass Incarceration Inevitable?
    Please fix title. I’ll ask nicely once.

    1. Oh, now the part two has been posted
      In Mass Incarceration Inevitable?
      Is Mass Incarceration Inevitable?
      After my patient request “Please fix title”.
      I am trying to be patient. Don’t try me.

      1. Finally the titles are fixed.
        That wasn’t so hard, was it?

  9. That the poor are disproportionately incarcerated cannot be disputed, on the basis of the standard definition of “poor”.
    That blacks are disproportionately poor also cannot be disputed.
    I have never seen a controlled study of the rates of black poverty and incarceration intersect. While 20% of blacks are “poor” and only 8% of whites are but 20% of 13% is still fewer than 8% of 60%. Roughly half of all murders are of blacks. Considering the high rate of corelation of the race of the victim to the perpetrator, roughly 90% of the perpetrators are also black, also highly disproportionate.

    The poor are also disproportionately victims of crime, to the extent that mass incarceration reduces crime in poor communities those communities benefit.

    Most people point out that many people in prison are convicted of drug offenses, without qualification. Many of these people are associated with organized drug trafficking, even those in prison for possession may have plead guilty to simple possession, in exchange for information on other traffickers. I haven’t seen any figures those numbers for people incarcerated in state prison for drug offenses and the severity of their offenses. In Federal Prisons very few people are incarcerated for simple possession, most are relatively large scale drug traffickers, in essence organized crime figures, these criminal enterprises are often violent. Some of the proponents of “sentencing reform” have been less than forthcoming about these “true facts” and gloss over the implications.

    Similarly the advocates of gun control seem to disproportionally focus on relatively rare, high profile crimes involving mostly white victims, while generally ignoring the much larger number of largely under reported blacks killed every day. Mass shootings involving mostly black victims rarely get much media attention.

    According to the FBI there were 17,284 murders in 2017, 51.9% or 8,970 of the victims were black and the perpetrators of those murders were 93% black. Many of those murders were purported to be drug related. Much has been written in the media about the effects of incarceration on the families of criminals or the occasional person releases from prison after long periods in prison, less is written about the effects of the crime on families of the victim of a convicted criminal. There is an unbalance.

    1. I have seen studies discussing this. If you control for poverty the back / white crime rate diference narrows but it does not disappear, or anything like it. Ditto if you control for IQ.

      FWIW I think there must be an “inner city” ratchet effect. ie once a neighborhood gets sufficiently unpleasant, the pay offs for acting in a law abiding fashion reduce. Hence folk who would behave fine if they moved to a nicer neighborhood, will behave badly in an already crime ravaged ghetto.

      The most aggressive, impulsive and unpleasant 1% will always tend to be criminals. But if the environment does not reward good behavior then the next 9% are going to be swept in too.

      1. I hesitate to write this but I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.

        There are some larger issues I think. Black communities especially urban communities have bonded together to resist oppression and can see anyone, even another black from the community who challenges that bond as an enemy. Whole theories have been built to buttress these perceptions and enforce conformity. There are actors with some communities who actively feed that sometimes to the detriment of the community.

        On Mothers day in 2013 A 22 year old black man and his 26 year old brother ambushed a community Mothers Day parade and shot 19 people, another person was trampled. Apparently they were looking to shoot someone who had shot another member of their family and was in rival drug gang. 4 years later a friend of mine shot that day died as a result of her injuries, she was a writer and reporter.

        They both admitted being involved in five shootings and yet they were both still on the street. Multiple members of their family have been indited on Federal Drug Charges.

        1. “Brothers Akein “Keemy” Scott and Shawn “Shizzle” Scott entered guilty pleas to racketeering and conspiracy charges, as well as counts related to a total of five shootings they committed.”

          It’s not clear from the news coverage that any of the charges would automatically considered “violent”. In any event the fact they did a deal with the feds indicates a significant inducement was to put the in places where their enemies couldn’t get to them.

  10. This article was IMO really well written. Thanks for sharing it on this blog.

  11. “The percentage of African Americans behind bars is substantially greater than their percentage of the population …”

    Incarceration correlates nicely with IQ If you controlled for IQ, the racial disequilibrium in the prison population would largely disappear. But – somehow – intelligence can’ t be discussed, damn the science.

    1. Y’all on the right got a race realists problem.

      1. As opposed to the left’s race unrealist problem?

        1. Brett, don’t join the Bell Curve caucus as well, FFS. You can be conservative and even hate liberals without being needlessly racist.

          1. As I mentioned higher up the thread, the cry of “racism” from sarcastro is just a hissy fit to fill the gap left by the absence of an actual counter-argument.

            Black-white IQ differences are fact. The Bell Curve mentions that fact. It does not pronounce on the cause of them. Nevertheless sarcastro insists that between the lines, the authors have written “it’s genes, genes, all genes !” in invisible ink.

            Yawn.

            1. People who think, based on the current state of evidence, that blacks have a lower intelligence? I’m quite fine with calling those people are racists.

              Black-white IQ differences are fact.
              The Bell Curve’s findings are roundly disputed. And whether IQ is the appropriate metric to use as intelligence is another question you ignore.

              1. The trouble is, I know you’re not stupid, so I can tell when you’re hand waving.

                moi : Black-white IQ differences are fact.
                sarcastro : The Bell Curve’s findings are roundly disputed.

                Sure, but not that finding. As you know perfectly well, as you keep trying to change the subject to “intelligence.”

                What “intelligence” is, what its relationship with IQ scores might be, and how people wish to use the word are all interesting – but different – questions from the fact that Black-white IQ differences are a fact. Not to mention a large, persistent, depressing fact.

                And it is with IQ scores – not “intelligence” – that statisticians (not just the Bell Curve’s authors) have computed all sorts of scary correlations with measures of life success – like jobs, income, stable marriage, health and – most relevant to this thread – crime (inverse).

                Your wittering about “intelligence” (undefined) is simply irrelevant. Maybe IQ tests measure no more than the winningness of your smile. But all the same your IQ score is (inversely) correlated with your likelihood ogf getting swept into the criminal justice system. Whether you are black or white or a fetching shade of lime green.

    2. Incarceration correlates nicely with IQ If you controlled for IQ, the racial disequilibrium in the prison population would largely disappear.

      This turns out not to be the case. Control for IQ (as with controlling for poverty) and the black-white crime differential narrows some, but it remains substantial.

  12. […]will any reform efforts be enough to shed the “mass incarceration” label?

    I couldn’t help but notice that while you came to a conclusion, you never identified your criteria on what success would look like.

    Failure to define exit-criteria will, of course, make success very, very difficult.

    It’s possible you identified this exit-criteria in your full paper, but as presented, it looks like you skipped this essential step.

    Which isn’t to say that you’re necessarily wrong. But without identifying your criteria for success, it’s impossible to know if you’re right.

  13. Enough with the opinions. Let’s look at the statistics. A bit out of date, but relevant nevertheless: https://politicsandprosperity.com/2014/11/11/crime-revisited/

  14. Too make touchy topics in one post! Jail, crime, race, drugs, violence….

    https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/suficspi16.pdf tells us that, of the prisoners possessing a firearms when caught for their jailable offense, 12% were White, with the 2016 population demographics 72% White. Are Whites caught, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and jailed 6-fold less often for the same crimes? Maybe…

    1. I think you’re reading that wrong. I think it is saying that for state prisoners, 12% of white offenders possessed a firearm while committing their offense, not that 12% of crooks with a gun were white. Specifically, I’m looking at table 4. Compare the ‘Number of prisoners’ column to the corresponding ‘Percent of prisoners…’ column. For Pacific Islander, the per cent column is 22.8, but 10700 isn’t 22% of the total of the ‘Number of’ column. Or look down to ‘Citizenship’ – the percentages total only 39.5%, not 100.

  15. The real answer to the mass incarceration issue is…employment.

    It should come as no surprise that unemployment rates and crime rates are linked. That higher UE leads to higher crime. The causes for that are multiple. (These are general reasons below, there are of course individual exceptions to them)

    1. If you’re working all day, you’re not available to go committing crimes in the day.
    2. If you just worked all day, you’re too tired at night to go out and rob someone.
    3. If you have money from working, it’s easier to just spend it to get what you want than to rob/steal.
    4. Drugs, at least initially, are often a recourse due to boredom. Working alleviates that. Drugs (and the resulting drug sales and illegal activity) then are logical follow ups.
    5. Working of course, gives a sense of purpose.
    6. Once a culture of working is established, it becomes self-perpetuating in a community. Once a culture of criminal behavior is established, it can also become self-perpetuating in a community

    So, question is, why did UE spike, especially among the poor, young adult, and minority populations? The reasons are multitude. One obvious answer is…illegal immigration. This effectively suppressed wages, and “pushed” marginal workers (like teens) out of the labor force. Once out of the labor force, alternate career opportunities (crime) presented themselves.

    In order to break the cycle, we need to keep UE low, especially among the poor and minority communities. To do this, the following items are needed. 1. Illegal immigration needs to be restricted, keeping UE low, and increasing the labor force participation rate among these most vunerable groups. 2. New minimum wage laws should NOT be instituted. They effectively act to reduce labor hours and employment. ANY labor is beneficial here, and even the current minimum wage pays far better than most corner drug dealers (and the resulting violence that occurs).

    1. Do you have a source on that? Although it makes some intuitive sense, my understanding is that most macroeconomic indicators have a very modest correlation with crime rates. But I’ll admit it’s been some time since I took a look at any work in the field.

      1. “The Effects of Unemployment on Crime Rates in the U.S.” by Ajimotokin et al, and references therein for other countries.

  16. Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation.”

    Nearly right. Lengthy prison sentences are efficient in reducing crime rates by incapacitation, if they are inflicted on

    (a) young men
    (b) committing very repeatable offenses

    So in efficiency terms it makes sense to slap ten years on an 18 year old mugger or burglar. But less sense to do the same with a 28 year old. Giving an 18 year old a 20 year sentence is likely to prevent a lot of crime in the first ten years, and much less in the second ten.

  17. Suppose, for example, that in looking for people who don’t really “need” to be behind bars, we decide that those who commit corporate offenses should qualify.

    This is one of those places where folk are losing sight of the ball. Presumably “corporate offences” are standing in for non violent financial or commercial offences generally, not just matters relating to corporations. And it’s entirely believable that a white collar fraudster won’t reoffend – not least because his chances of getting into a position of financial responsibility will diminish once he has a conviction for fraud.

    But giving him a non custodial sentence is not going to help deter other potential fraudsters. Rather the opposite.

    In the crime reduction business, prison is serving the purposes of both deterrence and incapacitation. Some crimes and some criminals may be hard to deter but nevertheless within the reach of incapacitation. Some crimes may be deterrable, even if, once caught, a criminal may be at low risk of reoffending.

    A far as white collar criminals are concerned, it seems to me that we could perhaps achieve the same degree of deterrence with slightly shorter sentences, but with more rock breaking. Just a thought.

    1. “But giving him a non custodial sentence is not going to help deter other potential fraudsters. Rather the opposite.”

      One could suggest that making a white collar criminal (regardless of race) unemployable and broke satisfies the the deterrent, especially if enough such criminals are sentenced. Holding out for significant jail time substantially reduces the probability of a guilty plea and exponentially raises the cost of the case, reducing the number of cases that can be prosecuted.

  18. It seems to me that the authors are ignoring the two main problems. (1) A huge number of acts have been criminalized that shouldn’t be. Insider trading, possession of the feathers of migratory birds, occupational licensing, the very size of the list isn’t even known. And the penalties for most of them are ridiculously high. (2) Prosecutors have effectively unlimited power (because total immunity) and abuse it horribly. All they have to do is overcharge you and then offer you a plea bargain you can’t refuse, and off to jail you go without a trial. This practice makes the Bill of Rights a joke and needs to be totally banned.

Please to post comments