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by Peter Moskos

August 28, 2009

Incarceration

Nothing new here. But it's good to have a refresher course every now and then. It's too easy for prisoners to be out of sight and out of mind.

(plus these are the neatest diagrams I've found in the subject)

Now it's 2,300,000 behind bars.



The increase is all since 1970 and the war on drugs.



It has little relationship to the crime rate. This is important. Because people generally don't have a problem with locking up criminals because there's more crime. We're just locking up more people. And the crime rate doesn't change because of it.



The incarceration rate is going still going up. Now it's above 750.



You can read the complete Justice Policy Institute report here. It's from 2000, but the later reports don't have the pretty diagrams. The latest report, Prisons in 2007, can be found here.

3 comments:

Just the facts said...

"It has little relationship to the crime rate. This is important. Because people generally don't have a problem with locking up criminals because there's more crime. We're just locking up more people. And the crime rate doesn't change because of it."

I'm sure you'll come up with some other reasons, but there HAS been a drop in crime in the U.S. Of course, there have been huge cultural shifts and massive immigration, as well as a burgeoning gang problem, but please explain the following drops in crime from 1994 thru 2007 (from the UCR)

Homicide: -32%
Robbery: -32%
Property Crimes: 25%

And the list goes on....

Just the facts said...

Sorry 'bout the typo:

Property Crimes: -25%

Oh, checked out the Justice Policy Institute. You can hardly call them a legitimate organization publishing objective material. They have a clearly stated agenda and will publish whatever they want in whatever fashion that supports their particular viewpoint. Not very scientific, is it Professor?

PCM said...

Publishing U.S. Department of Justice data is somehow illegitimate? Just because an organization has a stated agenda isn't a problem. All organizations have an agenda. I have an agenda. It's the next step that is important: being honest and open to opposing facts.

The Justice Policy Institute doesn't lie or make up stats. I think they're very legitimate. They publicize facts that support their cause, in this case from the U.S. Department of Justice (what's their agenda?). What's wrong with that?

But let me talk about the crime decline issue because it's important and a lot of people instinctively give credit to prisons for the drop in crime. Some, like Levitt, say that incarceration has been responsible for 25% of the crime decline. I think that's on the high end, but it's possible. Who knows for sure?

The real issue is that prison population has been increasing since 1970 and crime (let's say homicide) dropped only in the 1990s.

In 1970, the murder rate was 7.9. In 1990, the murder rate was 9.4. The prison population went up from 338,000 to 1,148,702. So does increased incarceration cause the murder rate to go up? Probably not.

But the point is the crime rate has gone up and down and stayed steady without any correlation to the prison population, which has only gone up.

You see what I'm saying?

It's not fair to only look at the 1990s and say crime dropped because of increased incarceration and ignore the other decades when increased incarceration correlated with crime increases.

Between 1990 and 2000, the prison population when up 800,000 from 1.15 million to 1.95 million. Since then, it's gone up another 400,000. To say that locking people up is responsible for the crime drop means there must be something special about the 800,000 more that were locked up in the 1990s that doesn't hold true to other 1.5 million locked up before and since.