Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Emptying prisons makes Wired magazine 'Smart List'

Earlier this year I was asked by Texas Monthly to submit a "Big Idea' for Texas and I suggested radically reducing the state's prison population:
Texas should dramatically slash its prison population and eliminate a majority of felony crimes. We have criminalized too many different activities: Texas has 2,324 separate felonies on the books, including 11 involving oysters. From 1978 to 2008, Texas's population increased 80 percent, while the prison population increased 595 percent. If prison growth had matched population growth, around 40,000 would be in Texas prisons today - instead the number is about 155,000. Texas must stop trying to manage every social problem through the justice system and re-empower its civil courts and regulatory functions to handle more conflicts among citizens.
So I was pleased to see a similar suggestion in the current issue of Wired magazine as part of its cover feature "The Smart List: Twelve Shocking Ideas That Could Change the World." The list included a suggestion from criminologist Nils Christie to dramatically reduce incarceration rates. He offered this interesting observation:
"I don't like the term crime—it's such a big, fat, imprecise word," says the renowned University of Oslo criminologist. "There are only unwanted acts. How we perceive them depends on our relationship with those who carry them out."
Regular readers know the United States far outstrips all other nations in terms of incarceration (and Texas' rates far exceed the national average). America has 5% of the planet's population but incarcerates 25% of its prisoners. The Wired article included this graphic comparing US incarceration rates to various other countries:


Karo said...

We are a rich county so we can afford it... It makes more sense than spending $250,000,000 per fighter jet for the air force.

x684867 said...

Great posting....gotta love Wired.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Do you really think we can afford it, Karo?

States all over are releasing prisoners because they can't afford to incarcerate them. Just to point to a few recent examples, there's Illinois and Ohio, and also California, Colorado, Kentucky and Mchigan. A total of 23 states cut prison spending in their most recent legislative session.

I'll agree with you on one thing: Mass incarceration is a rich nation's hobby. That's why the trend started to go the other direction when the economy tanked. We've reached the limit of what we can afford.

Karo said...

We recently stopped building the F-22 Raptor. We stopped in no small part because of the ridiculous expense. So this was kinda-sorta my point regarding incarceration rates although I admit the statement was oblique.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Karo, on that note you'll also be interested in another item on their "Smart List" about Robert Gates' efforts to refocus Pentagon spending away from expensive, futuristic toys and toward the conflicts we're currently engaged in.

Charlie O said...


US incarceration rates have to make you wonder. Do we have too many crimes (criminals) or too many laws? I lean towards the latter. You've written many times of Texas' attempts to address every social ill with criminal statutes. There's a great book about this on the federal level, Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything by Gene Healy. Even G. Gordon Liddy makes good points on this in his book When I Was a Kid, This was a Free Country.

On a side note, Texas may have one less person in its confines soon, my wife had a parole hearing today (moved up from November). She was given a two year offset last time. Hope to get some good news soon.

Anonymous said...

Those stats are staggering.

sunray's wench said...

Fingers crossed for you Charlie O

Anonymous said...

Yes, we will think positive, cross our fingers and say a few prayers for Charlie O and his wife that she gets parole this time up.

On the larger question incarceration rates are not a function of crime. In fact criminal victimization in the US has been trending downward for about 30 years (NCVS data 1973-present).

Since 1992 both NCVS and UCR data show a dramatic drop in crime. At this point our crime rates are about as low as they have ever been in the last 30-50 years. If crime were the sole determinant we should have lower per capita incarceration rates not higher rates.

What actually determines incarcaration rates are policy decisions -- often driven by political to posture as a tough on crime -- that increase the number of people who are sentenced to prison and increase the length of sentence served (longer sentences, reduced use of parole, reduced use of probation, etc.).

Criminal justice policies - not crime -- have resulted in more than 1:100 Americans being incarcerated and for African American males the rates are astronomical roughly 4500/100,000 people (compared to about 750/1000 White males). This difference is driven mostly by drug law enforcement despite use rates being far higher for White males than African American males.

The incarceration for African American males is about 5.5times higher than incarceration rates of Black South Africans under apartheid in 1993.

These fact should shock the conscience of most people. If not, perhaps we need to ask what would shock their conscience?

Anonymous said...

I am in 100% agreement with you Charlie O. I can point you to some fellow Texans that are currently serving in Federal Prison due to some serious criminalization thanks to a conciousless "Just Us" department, "creative" U.S. Prosectutors that could match tactics with O.B.L. any day...(in the name of the U.S.A. of course) and sadly with the help of some Judges they have managed to dupe. Truth and Justice should not be mutually exclusive anywhere in this country.

Quack said...

"[...] rates are not a function of crime. In fact criminal victimization in the US has been trending downward for about 30 years"

Hey Einstein incarceration rates began trending up during the same period as criminal victimization rates are going down. A certain percentage of people are just plain criminal-types and the more of them locked away the lower the victimization rate. It really isn't that hard to understand.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Then Quack, why are US crime rates so much higher than countries where incarceration rates are lower?

Quack said...

A nation like ours, with a highly effective police force, will have a higher crime rate than a nation with an under funded, corrupt, or otherwise ineffective police force. If the citizenry has no confidence in the police then crimes go unreported. Around here people are so confident in the police that schools and parents call the cops when their kids misbehave. The crime rate is not an accurate measure of victimization!

The crime rate is what the police report was reported to them. So by the time you get a crime rate from a bureaucrat somewhere it is no better than 3rd hand information:
victim -> police -> bureaucrat -> you

Remember that both the police and the bureaucrat may have political motivations to massage those numbers so it would be foolish to base policy decisions soley off crime rates.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"The crime rate is not an accurate measure of victimization!"

Funny, it was a minute ago when you were arguing for the merits of mass incarceration. ;)

Quack said...

Actually my previous post did not conflate the crime rate and the rate of victimization but I can see why you say that.

Anonymous said...

Hey Quack.... take your head out of the.... sand ...look at the data and try to understand what you are looking at.

Estimates by the Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council and many researchers who have carefully looked at this issue estimate that increasing use of imprisonment had a marginal impact on crime rates (low range estimates 4% to high 10-12% of variance in crime rates). That means that 88% to 96% of the the drop in crime rates is due to other factors -- NOT INCREASED INCARCERATION RATES.

Furthermore, you confuse victimization rates and crime rates. Crime rates refer to reported crime known to police (i.e., calls for service which are are classified as violations of law). Crime reports get misclassified as crimes a lot. Sometimes the misclassification is systematic for political purposes or management perposes (increasing or decreasing the appearance of crimes). In some cases the FBI has decertified data for major cities because they have found systematic errors (e.g., Los Angeles, Atlanta, and others).

Victimization rates cannot be systemtically manipulated for political or management purposes. Any error is random based on individual self reports of prior victimization in annual National Crime Victimization Surveys by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Victimization has been trending downward since 1973. Furthermore, NCVS data acccounts for twice as much crime as UCR crime rates.

For these reasons NCVS data is considered by many researchers as being far more reliable than UCR data. In short, the most reliable indicator of crime in society are victimization data; and, the downward trend started LONG BEFORE the sharp increases in mass incarceration observed in the late 1980's and 1990's that you simplistically argue resulted in the reductions in reported crime we have seen.

Causal influences cannot be causal when the effect occurs before the cause.

Quack said...

Thanks, your argument agrees with my statement that crime rate doesn't not equal victimization rate.

As the incarceration rate has gone up, the victimization rate has gone down. I don't think this is a coincidence. You say it is and offer up TCJPC estimates to back your claim. I don't have any good counter argument except to say that TCJPC was disbanded for a reason. Oh, and also the Freakanomics book says the lower rates are due to legal abortion... the premise is that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals so legalized abortion reduces crime. I'm not sure if I buy that theory but it is interesting; if for no other reason than it shows the crazy things you can do with statistics.

Anonymous said...

charlie O, best of luck w/ the parole hearing. If she's toed the line, she ought to be hope soon...
god bless....

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