Discussion of America’s Status as the World’s Biggest Jailer

The other day I mentioned that the U.S. was the world’s biggest prison population per capita. That lead to an informative and friendly discussion with Mike why that might be.

Here’s a recap. I hope to keep the discussion going and bring in ideas from other people. Leave comments on this thread.

  1. I think there are two points that need to made here…

    The first is that our prisons are not really full of non-violent, generally harmless drug users or low-level dealers. The people who finally make their way into the prison system are almost invariably people with multiple arrests for serious crimes. On paper, they may be charged with fairly benign-sounding crimes, because nasty incidents are plea-bargained down to easy convictions over less-nasty charges. We are very good, sometimes too good, at diverting seemingly harmless offenders away from the prison system.

    The second is that the proper measure of your incarceration rate is not the incarceration rate of your neighbors – it’s the crime rate here at home. We have a high rate of serious crime in the US, and we put corresponding number people in jail. That’s a crime problem, not an incarceration problem. You can blame whomever you want for the high rate of crime, but, given that high rate, a correspondingly high rate of incarceration is a good thing, not a bad thing. The alternative is far worse.

    We can, and should, make pot legal tomorrow, but I think it will do little to change the incarceration rate. A large part of the pot trade is run by people who are basically peaceful and good, but another large part of it is violent and awful. The bad people who run the ugly side of that trade will move on to other violent, awful things, and we will still be seeing them in our prisons, regardless.

  2. Les Jones says:

    I’m ll for getting violent criminals off the street and keeping them off the street, but I don’t think that’s how we got to be #1 on incarceration rates. Our incarceration rate is way out of proportion to our violent crime rate. We rank #1 in incarceration rate and about #100 in our homicide rate.

    I don’t blame all of it on the war or drugs, but that’s obviously a huge component. There’s a huge incentive foMandatory sentences for drugs are often unreasonable – 5 or 10 years for a couple of oxycontin is madness.

    Another piece of the blame goes to the prison guard unions. They have a built-in financial incentive to encourage longer sentences and mandatory sentences. Police unions are against legalization and harsher sentences because the police benefit from seizure laws:

    The Top Five Special Interest Groups Lobbying to Keep Marijuana Illegal:

    “1.) Police Unions: Police departments across the country have become dependent on federal drug war grants to finance their budget. In March, we published a story revealing that a police union lobbyist in California coordinated the effort to defeat Prop 19, a ballot measure in 2010 to legalize marijuana, while helping his police department clients collect tens of millions in federal marijuana-eradication grants. And it’s not just in California. Federal lobbying disclosures show that other police union lobbyists have pushed for stiffer penalties for marijuana-related crimes nationwide.”

    “2.) Private Prisons Corporations: Private prison corporations make millions by incarcerating people who have been imprisoned for drug crimes, including marijuana. As Republic Report’s Matt Stoller noted last year, Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest for-profit prison companies, revealed in a regulatory filing that continuing the drug war is part in parcel to their business strategy. Prison companies have spent millions bankrolling pro-drug war politicians and have used secretive front groups, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, to pass harsh sentencing requirements for drug crimes. ”

    The Role of the Prison Guards Union in California’s Troubled Prison System

  3. Mike says:

    That site says the US murder rate is 4.2. The murder rate for all of Western Europe is 1.0. Yeah, we’re not as bad as Africa, but I would expect us to jail about 4 times as many killers as the average European country does.

    Murder is a subset of violent crime – this site says we have the highest violent crime rate among listed nations:

    http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/countries-with-highest-reported-crime-rates.html

    I do know it is very difficult to make accurate comparisons here – different countries have different definitions of violent crime, and different reporting methods, and that matters a lot.

  4. Les Jones says:

    “this site says we have the highest violent crime rate among listed nations”

    It never uses the word violent. It just says crime. The government can generate as much crime as it wants by making enough things illegal.

  5. Mike says:

    That’s overall crime, yes. My mistake.

    This is an interesting read – a good comparison of US vrs Canadian crime rates, corrected for differences in how the crimes are classified and reported:

    http://www.uwindsor.ca/users/m/mfc/41-240.nsf/0/10ff8b04ff3a317885256d88005720f6/$FILE/ATT8BNDV/0110185-002-XIE.pdf

    TL:DR; US violent crime rates are a bit more than twice as high, while property crime rates are about identical. The US drug arrest rate is about thee times that of Canada.

    Our incarceration rate is about six times higher.

    Without breaking down the incarceration rates by actual crime committed (as opposed to what’s charged) it’s hard to make a fair comparision. Violent crimes and serious drugs crimes earn long sentences, especially if they involve repeat offenses. If only as fraction of the reported property crimes result in prison sentences (as opposed to jail, or parole, or other alternative sentencing) then I’d expect us to have a substantially higher incarceration rates, all else being equal. But six times? That’s a lot.

    I suppose the best way to settle it is to see who’d actually sitting in American prisons – not just what they were charged with, but their criminal history, and the actual offenses then committed. I suppose a tour of US sentencing guidelines would tell us a lot. I’ll see what I can find.

    I will make you an informal bet – I’m guessing that if I could offer you a random selection of people from the US prison system, there are very few whom you would think we ought to release.

  6. Mike says:

    OK, this looks interesting…

    PA state sentencing guidelines (selected because it was easy to find). Have a look at this matrix:

    http://pcs.la.psu.edu/guidelines/sentencing/sentencing-guidelines-and-implemetation-manuals/6th-edition-revised/basic-sentencing-guideline-matrix/SentGLMatrixColor6thEdRev.pdf#navpanes=0

    Green means prison. No low level offenders are going to prison there without a substantial criminal history.

    Of course, that’s just the first level of the guidelines, there are additional details regarding weapons and so on. The full details are here: http://pcs.la.psu.edu/guidelines/sentencing/sentencing-guidelines-and-implemetation-manuals/6th-edition-revised/basic-sentencing-guideline-matrix

  7. Les Jones says:

    “I’m guessing that if I could offer you a random selection of people from the US prison system, there are very few whom you would think we ought to release.”

    There are a lot I wouldn’t want out, granted. What percentage of prisoners are in for violent crime vs. druge crimes depends on whether you pick state or federal prisons.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States

    “7.9% of sentenced prisoners in federal prisons on September 30, 2009 were in for violent crimes.[19] 52.4% of sentenced prisoners in state prisons at year end 2008 were in for violent crimes.[19] 21.6% of convicted inmates in jails in 2002 (latest available data by type of offense) were in for violent crimes. Among unconvicted inmates in jails in 2002, 34% had a violent offense as the most serious charge. 41% percent of convicted and unconvicted jail inmates in 2002 had a current or prior violent offense; 46% were nonviolent recidivists. [23]”

    http://www.libertariannews.org/2011/09/29/victimless-crime-constitutes-86-of-the-american-prison-population/:

    “In light of that, let us review some statistics which demonstrate just how destructive the mass incarceration of victimless criminals has become to our society. The 2009 federal prison population consisted of:

    Drugs 50.7%
    Public-order 35.0%,
    Violent 7.9%
    Property 5.8%
    Other .7%”

    Then there’s the question of how many of the violent crimes are motivated by people either wanting drugs or making a profit on drugs. If all drugs were legalized tomorrow (which I don’t think we should do, BTW), would some of the drug dealers switch to a different criminal activity? Sure. But some wouldn’t. The black market for drugs creates incentives, and people respond to incentives.

  8. Mike says:

    Yep.

    Federal prisons are quite different from state prisons, which are different from jails (jails generally have a one-year limit, I think).

    This is a tough problem to consider fairly. The more I think about what metrics to look for, the more complicated it gets.

  9. Les Jones says:

    Mike, that’s a good point. I didn’t even think about local jails.

    I found a BLS report on the U.S. prison population. Table 2 page 7 breaks it down by state, local, and federal.

    For 2010:
    - 206,968 federal prisoners
    - 1,311,136 state prisoners
    - 748,728 local prisoners. S

    So roughly a third of prisoners are in local jails. I never dreamed it was that high. Good catch.

  10. Les Jones says:

    When I started to look up some stats on us prison population local vs state vs federal. When I started typing, one of the suggested searches was “what percentage of the u.s. prison population is mentally ill”.

    The first link goes here.

    “Of the nearly 2 million inmates being held in prisons and jails across the country, experts believe nearly 500,000 are mentally ill. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), 16 percent of the prison population can be classified as severely mentally ill, meaning that they fit the psychiatric classification for illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder. According to staff at city and community jails, 25 percent of the jail population is severely mentally ill. However, when other mental illnesses, such as anti-social personality disorder, borderline personality disorder and depression, are included, the numbers are much higher, and NAMI puts the number of inmates suffering from both mental illness and substance abuse the percentage at well over 50 percent. ”

    No doubt a significant percentage of criminals have some amount or mental illness or personality disorders. If 16 percent of the prison population is “severely mentally ill and if say half that might have been committed to an asylum in an earlier age, that’s 160,000 people who could have been diverted from prison and crime if we spent more on treating mental illness. That 8% decrease would drop our per capita incarceration rate from 715 to 658 per 100,000.

  11. Les Jones says:

    Here’s the breakdown on violent vs. non-violent offenses by the three categories from Wikipedia:

    “7.9% of sentenced prisoners in federal prisons on September 30, 2009 were in for violent crimes.[19] 52.4% of sentenced prisoners in state prisons at year end 2008 were in for violent crimes.[19] 21.6% of convicted inmates in jails in 2002 (latest available data by type of offense) were in for violent crimes. Among unconvicted inmates in jails in 2002, 34% had a violent offense as the most serious charge. 41% percent of convicted and unconvicted jail inmates in 2002 had a current or prior violent offense; 46% were nonviolent recidivists.”

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8 Responses to Discussion of America’s Status as the World’s Biggest Jailer

  1. Pingback: SayUncle » The world’s biggest jailer

  2. Robert says:

    I wouldn’t trust incarceration figures from any number of countries so we don’t have a stable base to determine if the US is #1 or not. Same thing with a lot of crime statistics and I don’t even trust our own as many police depts are known to cook the books.

  3. Les Jones says:

    I think that’s a fair point. Some countries flat out lie, and different countries use different definitions. So I think the actual ranks might shift some, but I think when all is said and done we’re way up there. If we’re not #1 we’re in the top 5.

  4. MrSatyre says:

    I’ve always questioned “factoids” like this simply because I know how countries like Venezuela, China, Cuba and Russia keep count (as in: they really don’t), so it’s really anyone’s guess just how many people they have incarcerated.

  5. Les Jones says:

    The title of that blog post refers to the prison population, but the report refers to persons under correctional supervision, which includes people on parole or probation. Someone dug through the report and found this: “The majority (83%) of the decline in the correctional population during the year was attributed to the decrease in the probation population (down 81,800 offenders).”

  6. Mike says:

    Yes.

    Here’s the original data [pdf]:

    http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf

    Very interesting reading. Lots of data here.

    Keeping clear the distinction between “under jurisdiction” and actually being in prison, table two says the nationwide total number of prisoners (state and federal) declined about 0.9 percent in 2011, and 0.1 percent the following year. These are pretty small declines, with the feds actually ramping up, and the states ramping down.

  7. Mike says:

    Now Metafilter has picked it up. Might be interesting once the comments accumulate:

    http://www.metafilter.com/123474/A-declining-number-of-US-adults-in-prison-or-on-probation