Monday, March 31, 2008

Wilson's criticisms of Pew study miss mark, ignore contrary research

A reader points me to an article in the LA Times by James Q. Wilson ("Do the time, lower the crime," March 30) responding to the recent study by the Pew Center on the States regarding America's high incarceration rate, which now exceeds one out of every 100 US adults. Wilson is one of the chief ideologists promoting a "get tough" approach nationally, so it's worth taking a moment to identify a few of the overstatements and obfuscations that to me typify his public pronouncements on crime.

For example, on the all-important subject of whether high imprisonment rates reduce crime, Wilson writes:
nowhere in the [Pew] report is there any discussion of the effect of prison on crime, and the argument about costs seems based on the false assumption that we are locking people up at high rates for the wrong reasons.

In the last 10 years, the effect of prison on crime rates has been studied by many scholars. The Pew report doesn't mention any of them. Among them is Steven Levitt, coauthor of "Freakonomics." He and others have shown that states that sent a higher fraction of convicts to prison had lower rates of crime, even after controlling for all of the other ways (poverty, urbanization and the proportion of young men in the population) that the states differed. A high risk of punishment reduces crime. Deterrence works.
For starters, his comment about incarceration vs. safety results in states cannot survive a comparison between Texas and New York, for example, so I'd like to see the research backing up that statement. By relying on Mr. Levitt's often controversial work, he's identified a scholar whose estimates of the effectiveness of imprisonment fall on the high end of those produced in the last decade. Levitt thinks that imprisonment accounted for as much as 32% of the reduction in crime in the 1990s (See "Understanding why crime fell in the 1990s").

Other econometric estimates - including one by UT-Austin's Bill Spelman - found that expanding the prison population accounted for about a quarter of the crime reduction in the '90s. (Bill and I have enjoyed a friendly dispute about this in the past, because I think some of his assumptions overstate incarceration's effectiveness and understate its harms). Overall, according to a recent paper by the Vera Institute, Levitt and Spelman "produced a fairly consistent finding, associating a 10 percent higher incarceration rate with a 2 to 4 percent lower crime rate."

But if we are to be honest about the state of empirical research on the topic, one cannot declare emphatically, as Wilson does, that "deterrence works" or that expanded incarceration "reduces crime." According to the Vera Institute, "One could use available research to argue that a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with no difference in crime rates, a 22 percent lower index crime rate, or a decrease only in the rate of property crime."

What's more, even the highest estimates, like Mr. Levitt's, still contend that 2/3 of the crime 0reduction had nothing to do with incarceration. So the decline in crime, according to these sources, mostly wasn't because of putting more people in prison.

Wilson says as much when he writes that, "Several scholars have separately estimated that the increase in the size of our prison population has driven down crime rates by 25%." But crime has declined much more than that since the early '90s, and Texas' prison population tripled since then, for example, so if it takes a 300% increase in prison capacity to get a 25% reduction in crime, how far can we really take that strategy?

Wilson similarly ignores research that suggests real, immediate limits to the benefits of incarceration in states that have large prison systems, again from the Vera Institute (p. 7):
Raymond Liedka, Anne Piehl, and Bert Useem have confirmed, moreover, that increases in prison populations in states with already large prison populations have less impact on crime than increases in states with smaller prison populations. States experience “accelerating declining marginal returns, that is, a percent reduction in crime that gets ever smaller with ever larger prison populations,” they argue. Thus, increases in incarceration rates are associated with lower crime rates at low levels of imprisonment, but the size of that association shrinks as incarceration rates get bigger.
So for states like California and Texas, the prospect of reducing crime by 2-4% by adding 10% to the prison population (in both states around 160,000 prisoners, give or take), represents massive additional expenditures that a) probably aren't worth the bang for the buck and b) are practically impossible in the real world because of limits on the state's ability to staff existing facilities.

Given that context, I audibly chortled upon reading Wilson's complaint that the Pew study compared increased state spending for prisons with that for universities, chiding Pew for failing to consider "whether society gets as much from universities as it does from prisons." Given the low marginal returns on prison spending and the much higher return rates on investment in higher education, we can have that debate, sir, but I doubt it will turn out quite the way you seem to think.

Professor Wilson offers a throwaway line that "except for some minor drug offenders" we don't imprison people needlessly. But in Texas (where Spelman's study was done), that's a LOT of folks. E.g., drug offenders are far and away the largest category of Texas probationers revoked to prison, and make up nearly a third of the prison population. Some "minor drug offenders" get awesomely long sentences - does Wilson think that improves safety, or not? He implies "no," but he certainly downplays the issue considering drug addicts are taking up so many prison beds.

I was happy to see Wilson advocating stronger probation programs, but they seemed almost an afterthought to his larger, erroneous thesis that mass incarceration is responsible for reduced crime. Nobody actually knows for sure what caused the crime drop in the '90s, though no one - even the research Wilson cites - claims that expanded incarceration caused most of the reduction. There's no doubt that some folks need to be incarcerated, but there's equally little doubt we incarcerate many more than is necessary to ensure public safety.

h/t to Bill Bush for forwarding the link.


Anonymous said...

Common sense says that if criminals are incarcerated, crime goes down. I can’t imagine that you would need a study to come to that conclusion.

As someone who works in the probation field, I can assure you that probation and programs are not the solution. This state wastes millions of dollars a year trying to help people that don’t want help.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Common sense says"? Please! Of course you don't "need" studies if gut reactions from uninformed people are enough to enact public policy. That's what got the system where it is today!

The only reason you need evidence-based studies is to discover if unproven "common sense" assumptions might be false, which it turns out is mostly the case in this example - the majority of crime reduction ISN'T from incarceration, even according to the evidence Wilson cites, and he dramatically overstates the benefits of additional incarceration, particularly for states with large prison systems.

Anonymous said...

Locking you up may not deter me from engaging in criminal behavior; however, locking you up does prevent you from criminal acts.

I am all for helping individuals that want help; however, I have a big problem wasting tax dollars shoving services down the throats of people who have no desire to change.

Anonymous said...

I think the question is when is incarceration an appropriate sanction?

I agree that some of the offenders don't want to change and are incarcerated because they are habitual offenders. My question is are there sanctions that are more appropriate and less costly (such as work release or day reporting) than incarceration for a nonviolent habitual offender.

Incarceration is appropriate for a person who is a serious threat to public safety but the level of the threat needs to be taken into consideration and if the threat diminishes with time adjustments should be made.

Other issues are persons who are incarcerated because they are a threat to their own safety. In general this is a medical/criminal issue that has been dumped on the CJ system and persons who are incarcerated because they are addicted to alcohol/drugs.

If prison were a residential alcohol/drug treatment facility this might be appropriate way to deal with the alcohol/drug problems. But prison alcohol/drug treatment programs vary over too wide a range from none to nearly equivalent to community based treatment.

My estimate is that prison is an inappropriate sanction for about 15% of the prisoners in Iowa prisons (the system I have studied extensively) they would be better off in a residential work release or treatment/MH facility and the older lifers who need nursing care should be placed in a nursing home.

Anonymous said...

Glad to see you went after this one, Grits.

Personally, I found it hilarious that the first source he cited to attack Pew was Freakonomics.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course...


Gritsforbreakfast said...

On Freakonomics, Bill, Levitt's most important research besides that pop book was probably the stuff Wilson is referencing, so it's really fine for him to do that. But Levitt's work is not without controversy, and quite a few of his assumptions have flagged under rigorous appraisal. I like his writing, he's a provocative thinker, but he's not exactly a mainstream one.

And to the person who writes, "Locking you up may not deter me from engaging in criminal behavior; however, locking you up does prevent you from criminal acts."

I agree with that for actual predators, murderers, rapists, robbers, violent people who are a threat to others, and probably repeat burglars, incarceration is justified solely to keep them from harming more people. For violators of many of the other 2,323 separate felonies the Lege has created, not so much. For many of those offenders, if incarceration is not part of a larger rehabilitative plan, it's probably not helping very much.

Anonymous said...

In my experience, court ordered rehab is a waste of time. We have placed countless probationers in rehab with little or no success. Rehabilitation is only effective when the individual receiving treatment desires treatment.

You can court order consequence, but you can't court order change.

Ron in Houston said...

Usually when you hear the argument "common sense says" it comes from someone who has is common sense deficient.

Anonymous said...

Usually when one attacks the poster its because that having nothing intelligent to say regarding the content of the post.

Once again, if you lock up the criminal, crime goes down. That is not a difficult concept to grasp. (common sense)

Unknown said...

Is it possible "common sense" tells us two things at the same time?

One the one hand, it seem obvious that incarceration reduces the crime rate - to an extent. On the other, it seems equally obvious that a reduction in crime cannot be wholly attributed to an increase in incarceration.

I think jsn has the right question: when do we jail offenders? I'm very interested in hearing some estimations on this from other commenters. What crimes, or classes of crimes, that we now typically impose prison sentences for would no longer be jailable offenses?

Anonymous said...

You can't say what crime or what classification of crime. It boils down to when is enough enough. I think most would agree that misdemeanor offenders should not go to prison initially, but what about after the 3rd, 4th, 5th conviction. If a misdemeanor offender is in prison, I am sure he has had his chances. So when is enough enough?

wolf said...

While the number of people in U.S. prisons is excessive, what is more shocking is that only about 5% of people charged with crimes end up in prison. Add to that all the crimes for which no one is ever caught or charged. What we seem to have is a society that has created a fabulous greenhouse for the growth and development of criminals. The back end approach of the tough on crime faction has helped make our country number one in the world in number of prison inmates, and there is no end in sight. Never mind that the roots of crime are child abuse, dysfunctional families, chemical abuse, poverty and lack of education. It's not glamourous, or macho, to ut our tax dollars into prevention. Never mind that the consequences are countless new crime victims, tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars and ruined lives without end.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Once again, if you lock up the criminal, crime goes down. That is not a difficult concept to grasp. (common sense)"

Many fallacious, feel-good concepts are not difficult to grasp - even children understand Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

I hate common sense when those purporting to use it claim it trumps evidence and facts. Down with common sense! Long live empiricism!

Anonymous said...

What "common sense" tells me is that statistics tell very fictional stories. Especially when it comes to the government telling its citizens when and how they are safe. A more common sense, nonfictional account is that the actual number of people incarcerated is skyrocketing. If they aren't being put in jail for crimes, then my common sense wonders how the "crime rates" could be dropping? Onto the probation/rehab solution. The waste of tax dollars is due to ineffective programs, minimal treatment and "microwave" fixes. Many of these "offenders" come to the system with years of damage. Chances are a 28 day program will not address this too well. the best idea is to be proactive, do a better job with youthful offenders, who frequently become repeat offenders. Non violent, drug and alcohol offenders should be in treatment and/or job training ASAP upon entering the judicial system, before the cell doors slam shut. The people who work in this system need a far more comprehensive training program. Recognizing mental and physical health issues, along with an improved long term plan, needs to be in the job description.

Unknown said...

It would seem to indicate that IF real crime is truly dropping - that the only logical conclusion is that we are locking up a lot of people who don't commit crimes. I wonder about a hypothetical study correlating numbers of police needing to justify their taxpayer funded salaries and the number of arrests and fines put on citizenry.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There are many treatment programs, anon, and you paint them all (wrongly) with quite a broad brush. Some work, some don't, and sometimes the person trying to implement a good program is incompetent.

As for the rest of your "common sense," you really just don't have a clue, and there are so many thinking errors in your comment for such a short statement I won't elaborate them all. Suffice it to say, crime rates have gone down a) MUCH more than even Wilson et. al. or anyone claim was caused by incarceration, and b) they've gone down over time when many sentences are just a few years and "incapacitation" doesn't explain the result. Your "common sense" simply doesn't match the factual situation on the ground. Sorry.

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. And Ron is right. When the facts fail them in the crime debate, supporters of mass incarceration inevitably turn to "common sense," which as you demonstrate need not be supported with statistics or data at all.

The last half of your post sounds like you support incarceration alternatives for low-level offenders, which makes me wonder exactly what you're arguing over, or why you'd support such things if you believe what you say you do about treatment vs. incarceration's effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

Here is the big difference in our approach to the problem. I work with individuals in the criminal justice system every day whereas you blog about it. I have real life experiences trying to solve problems and help people change their lives whereas you come to conclussions based on the latest study or statistic. I have seen statistics used to manipulate people so many times it is pathetic. I am not impressed by numbers, because they can be used to serve a biased cause.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fine, so you work in the system and can't see past your own anger, narcissism and myopia. I'm shocked. How uncommon (/sarcasm). Your ballyhooed "experience" seems to have generated its own "biased" agenda. There's a whole forest, my friend, beyond that tree you're angrily staring at.

We certainly should just end the conversation if you won't even accept the stats of the people who agree with you. That's just bizarre anti-intellectualism, a bigotry, not a legitimate stance. If you think the stats are wrong, argue the point. If you just don't trust math and haven't since high school algebra, you're probably reading the wrong blog.

Anonymous said...

I have an opposing point of view so it must be anger, right? It is amazing how you dismiss my opinion because my experiences don’t line up with what you have read.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fine, perhaps you're not angry, only myopic and narcissistic. In any event, you've in no way demonstrated that your "experiences don’t line up with what you have read." (And by the way, you might do well not to assume you know everything about other people's life experience who you've never met.)

You've expressed only emotion here, and claimed "common sense" trumps evidence when your emotions contradict facts. This blog is a place for rational debate, not emotional argument, which is all you've brought to the table, disguised as "common sense," in your words, but based on nothing but your own disgust for your job and the people you work with. If I sound dismissive, it's because I don't have time nor patience for conversations on that level.

Anonymous said...

." (And by the way, you might do well not to assume you know everything about other people's life experience who you've never met.)"

You follow that statement by referring to me as emotional and someone that is disgusted by my job and the people I work with. You could not be more wrong.

We simply have a difference of opinion. I respect your opinion; however, you seem to be agitated by mine.

You imply that my posts are emotional; however if you go back and read the dialogue, it is obvious who is emotional.

We will agree to disagree....

wolf said...

As a former probation officer I know that probation COULD work. As presently structured, probation officers have way to many "clients" and not enough resources. Even with an "Intensive" supervision case load, the officer, with just 40clients, cannot properly address actual needs. A regular probation officer is even worse off.
Instead of redesigning the probatiion system with evidence based ideas and adequately funding it, politicians prefer the "tough on crime" election tactic and pour much more of our money into prisons. And some folks then point to the system and say probation doesn,t work well enough. Well, DUH!!
In the meantime, many of the probation "failures", move on to prison.....welcome to another dysfunctional system.!!!!

Unknown said...

I'd like to make a small point: when probationers are revoked and sent to prison, it's not a failure of the system. Alas, it's a failure of the person.

Anonymous said...


What our POs tell me is if they have a reasonable case load they see their clients often enough so they have a good chance of dealing with problems before they become serious. Once a case load become too large the chances of timely intervention are much smaller. We know from experience if you overload your POs the revocation rate will increase.

However some clients will mess up no matter how short the leash and if they want to see the person responsible for their being in prison all they have to do is look in a mirror. In other words the system is partially responsible for the revocation but the client is primarily responsible.

Anonymous said...

Grits: If you believe facts and evidence, try this one on. Bacfk in the 90's when Bush became governor, one of his issues was reform of the juvenile justice system. TYC's capacity went from around 1300 secure beds to about 5000. Once the additional secure beds were being used, referrals to juvenile probation departmenrts statewide decreased in most all Texas counties by 25 to 30%, a very significant drop. Why did this happen? Because instead of a kid getting five, six or seven referrals before a judge dropped the hammer and committed then to TYC, they were dealt with after two or three serious referrals. When they were off the streets, so to say, that accounted for dozens of crimes they weren't committing.

While you are for depopulating prisons and juvenile facitities for various reasons, the facts are the facts. The facts are available on TJPC's website.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, first, I've granted above that "I agree with that for actual predators, murderers, rapists, robbers, violent people who are a threat to others, and probably repeat burglars, incarceration is justified solely to keep them from harming more people." That applies to juveniles, too.

However, you know as well as I do that a) about 97% of juvie offenders are still dealt with through local probation departments, NOT TYC, and b) juvenile crime began dropping BEFORE Bush was Governor (peaked in 1992).

TYC's inmate population today is at less than half the max under Bush, around 2,400. But juvenile crime hasn't jumped back up. Why? IMO because, just like in the adult system, for the most part it was factors besides incarceration that caused the crime reductions. I'd rather figure out what those are and put resources there, instead of in prisons where even the economists say we've reached a point of diminishing returns.