« Why Is This Election Different From All Other Elections? | Main | Giuliani's Foreign Policy »

August 14, 2007

Prison Facts

From Glenn Loury's article in The Boston Review:

According to a 2005 report of the International Centre for Prison Studies in London, the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan. We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart, the three largest corporate employers in the country, and we are spending some $200 billion annually on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government, a fourfold increase (in constant dollars) over the past quarter century.

Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.

Italics mine. I find that to be an utterly astounding statistic. The size of our workforce dedicated to imprisoning mostly-non-violent Americans is not merely equal, but significantly larger, than the workforces of our country's most massive three employers combined. And the population they exist to serve keeps growing, even as crime keeps dropping. Why? Because that's how we want it:

One simple measure of punitiveness is the likelihood that a person who is arrested will be subsequently incarcerated. Between 1980 and 2001, there was no real change in the chances of being arrested in response to a complaint: the rate was just under 50 percent. But the likelihood that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13 to 28 percent. And because the amount of time served and the rate of prison admission both increased, the incarceration rate for violent crime almost tripled, despite the decline in the level of violence. The incarceration rate for nonviolent and drug offenses increased at an even faster pace: between 1980 and 1997 the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent offenses tripled, and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by a factor of 11. Indeed, the criminal-justice researcher Alfred Blumstein has argued that none of the growth in incarceration between 1980 and 1996 can be attributed to more crime.

This growth in punitiveness was accompanied by a shift in thinking about the basic purpose of criminal justice. In the 1970s, the sociologist David Garland argues, the corrections system was commonly seen as a way to prepare offenders to rejoin society. Since then, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to punishment and stayed there. Felons are no longer persons to be supported, but risks to be dealt with. And the way to deal with the risks is to keep them locked up.

This, of course, affected policing priorities, to the point that researchers now find that "higher incarceration in a given neighborhood in one year seemed to predict higher crime rates in that same neighborhood one year later," as policing becomes more intensive and less-lenient in high crime neighborhoods, parolees returning to their homes are closely monitored, and sentencing laws for repeat felons come into play. In other words, imprisonment begets imprisonment -- because we want these populations imprisoned.

August 14, 2007 | Permalink


>mostly-non-violent Americans

can you elaborate on this? What kind of crimes are people typically in prison for?

Posted by: roublen | Aug 14, 2007 1:03:52 PM

It's in the first quote -- drug and property crimes. fewer than a third are violent offenders.

Posted by: Ezra | Aug 14, 2007 1:07:01 PM

I've already said this before, but I really applaud you for discussing this issue. It has been politically difficult for a long time, but the problem is so huge it just can't be ignored any more. If you want to read an interesting (and long) report on how to move past the current drug prohibition model that has been driving this trend, the UK group Transform has just released an incredible report here on how to bring about responsible change:


Posted by: thehim | Aug 14, 2007 1:16:20 PM

Ezra, This and your other recent post w/links on prisons is excellent. P.O.V., the independent documentary show on PBS, ran an excellent doc, Prison Town, USA on 7/24/07 that highlighted a lot of the problems these various authors raise about prison impacts on host communities.


Posted by: Leigh | Aug 14, 2007 1:20:51 PM

It's the War on Drugs. So just legalize the damn things already.

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Aug 14, 2007 1:31:24 PM

I found Loury's article odd and muddled reading. He seems to want us to conclude that the increase in punishment is just an irrational, racist, hateful phenomenon, but he doesn't quite say that or give evidence that would clearly support it. He does make arguments that it's not rational in the sense that it seems to be an overreaction, not effective, etc., which are important points. And he points out the racial dimensions, also important. But he doesn't show that people favor stronger punishment for any other reasons than that they think it's the best way to fight crime. At one point he says:

But my argument is analytical, not existential. Its principal thesis is this: we law-abiding, middle-class Americans have made decisions about social policy and incarceration, and we benefit from those decisions, and that means from a system of suffering, rooted in state violence, meted out at our request. We had choices and we decided to be more punitive. Our society—the society we have made—creates criminogenic conditions in our sprawling urban ghettos, and then acts out rituals of punishment against them as some awful form of human sacrifice.

This situation raises a moral problem that we cannot avoid. We cannot pretend that there are more important problems in our society, or that this circumstance is the necessary solution to other, more pressing problems—unless we are also prepared to say that we have turned our backs on the ideal of equality for all citizens and abandoned the principles of justice. We ought to ask ourselves two questions: Just what manner of people are we Americans? And in light of this, what are our obligations to our fellow citizens—even those who break our laws? (original empahisis)

So it's a human sacrifice ritual? That's his analytical claim? Do we really benefit from punitiveness, or has he been showing us that we don't?

In any case, his questions are very important, and the data he marshals are impressive. There's little doubt that our criminal/punitive system is counterproductive in huge ways, and has terrible racially significant consequences. Anyone asking the candidates what they're going to do about that?

I join the others in thanking you for focussing on this issue, Ezra.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 14, 2007 1:53:51 PM

I found Loury's article odd and muddled reading. He seems to want us to conclude that the increase in punishment is just an irrational, racist, hateful phenomenon, but he doesn't quite say that or give evidence that would clearly support it.

I won't speak for Loury, but the trend certainly has its root in prejudice, if not outright racism. The way we've dealt with drug activity in poorer and minority communities has been very different than how we've dealt with it in wealthier and mostly white communities. This has gone back to the beginning of drug prohibition (when San Francisco cracked down on Chinese opium users while ignoring those in the majority white community who could still freely purchase heroin or morphine).

A good example of this is how task forces conduct undercover operations or use confidential informants. You could arrest half the students at just about any major college that way for drug dealing, but those tactics only get employed in certain areas where there's a perception of higher criminality. The drug war plays upon our fears that there's more crime in black communities and then fulfills the prophecy by kicking off the cycle of imprisonment that Ezra discusses in the original post.

Posted by: thehim | Aug 14, 2007 2:02:46 PM

Anyone asking the candidates what they're going to do about that?

Actually, Huckabee has already made his position clear: he rejected a "three-strikes" law in Arkansas and called it "the dumbest piece of public-policy legislation in a long time. We don't have a massive crime problem; we have a massive drug problem. And you don't treat that by locking drug addicts up. We're putting away people we're mad at, instead of the people we're afraid of."

Posted by: Roberto Rivera | Aug 14, 2007 2:26:19 PM

Remember a while back how you asked how it is that the "stop snitchin" was so well received by so many in this country? Well, this is why.

Posted by: soullite | Aug 14, 2007 2:26:45 PM

Something else I'd be interested in having someone look at is the cost of all of this. I've got students who work two jobs to pay rent and tuition and still go deep in debt during their four (or five or six) years at the university. Wasn't like that when I was getting my B.A. Why can't the state fund university students anymore? Maybe they're too busy paying for prisons?

Posted by: delagar | Aug 14, 2007 2:37:10 PM

It's the privatization of our Prisons that is the problem. Beginning a generation ago, corporations took over building and managing our prisons at a huge profit. Of course, privatization means profitization. How does Corrections Corporation of America, Wackenhut and the rest of the prison predators make money? By making more prisoners, of course. So, despite the fact that crime has gone down, the cable media make a killing off the "if it bleeds, it ledes" policy, which in turn makes viewers fearful, so they pressure politicians to make more laws with stiffer sentences even for children, and voilá, we have more prisoners than any country on earth and several countries combined. Capitalism is a wonderful thing, isn't it?

Must Read:
Joel Dyer: The Perpetual Prisoner Machine; How America Profits From Crime

Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado

See Also:

Corrections Corporation of America



Mother Jones: Steel-Town Lockdown


The Economist: Gently Does It


Not With Our Money



Posted by: Brighid | Aug 14, 2007 3:00:05 PM

If someone steals from me, I want to see them punished, even if it is a property crime. It doesn't matter what color the person is or any other demographic variable. Property crimes are still crimes last time I checked.

Oh, and despite what the potheads and/or libertarians like to think, we aren't going to be legalizing any drugs soon. It's the perception of the drugs that is key. People don't like weed and the hard drugs, but they like tobacco to some extent and alcohol. It will be as hard to allow weed as it was to ban booze. Even the legislators allow it, people will discriminate against open drug users.

Posted by: OmegaPaladin | Aug 14, 2007 3:06:45 PM

I'm far from agreeing with everything Mike Gravel says on this issue, but at least he's talking about it in a serious way.

From Gravel's website:


The United States incarcerates more people and at a higher rate than any other peacetime nation in the world. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics the number of US residents behind bars has now reached more than 2.3 million.

We are losing an entire generation of young men and women to our prisons. Our nation’s ineffective and wasteful “war on drugs” plays a major role in this. We must place a greater emphasis on rehabilitation and prevention. We must de-criminalize minor drug offenses and increase the availability and visibility of substance abuse treatment and prevention in our communities as well as in jails and prisons.

We must increase the use of special drug courts in which addicted offenders are given the opportunity to complete court supervised substance abuse treatment instead of being sentenced to prison. We must eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws. We must increase the use of alternative penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. Drug defendants convicted of nonviolent offenses should not be given mandatory prison sentences. We should emphasize the criminalization of the importers, manufacturers, and major distributors, rather than just the street venders. Prisons in this country should be a legitimate criminal sanction -- but it should be an extension of a fair, just and wise society.

Posted by: Herschel | Aug 14, 2007 3:20:17 PM


It's only fair to note that public prisons are at least as bad as private prisons in pushing for more punitive laws.

For example, the CCPOA (California prison guards union, which Mark Kleiman calls the "dementors union") is one of the strongest supporters of three-strikes legislation AND a vehement opponent of private prisons.

Posted by: SamChevre | Aug 14, 2007 3:25:13 PM

Isn't there a cart before the horse problem with this analysis? You might be able to argue the majority is more willing to tolerate the disproportionate impact of drug laws (or other criminal prohibitions) because they are racists (I would still disagree) but most of you surely don't beleive the laws were enacted to carry out a racist program, do you?

Posted by: slickdpdx | Aug 14, 2007 3:45:26 PM


While the private prison corporations are an abomination (frankly, they should be closed and their corporate officers executed), they aren't the real driver behind the expansion in prison population. Rather, they're a symptom of the rapidly rising prison sizes.

Posted by: burritoboy | Aug 14, 2007 3:52:40 PM

The war on drugs has been disastrously bad public policy -- and its costs in human and economic terms is unbelievable.

I think a big part of the reason for the highly punitive attitudes toward crime is the fear engendered in the public by television news coverage. Anyone watching the local news could easily be convinced that we live in a time of unprecedented violence in our inner cities. The fact that violent crime has diminished markedly over the last two decades would surprise many people. People also grossly exagerate the likelihood that they will be victims of violent crime.

I am not opposed to stiff sentences for violent crime, but I think the draconian drug penalties and the "three strikes" laws need to be revisited and soon.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Aug 14, 2007 3:52:55 PM

As someone who has dealt with the criminal justice system somewhat (used to do a little criminal defense and work with three attorneys who have both prosecuted and defended cases from drunk driving to capital murder) I can tell you these things are a lot more complicated than you might think. First, what you will find is a whole lot of violent crimes and even more property crimes are in fact drug related where either the people were high on drugs, were stealing money/property to buy drugs or assaulting/robbing people to get drugs.

Just for curiosities' sake, I perused the last 5 or so reported capital cases in my jurisdiction (NC). Of those, one involved a man raping and robbing a 71 yr old woman, who then went and sold the porperty to buy drugs (all of $5.00 worth); another raped and killed 2 elderly women and an elderly man in the 1990's before DNA tracked him down. When arrested, he stated he didn't remember the killings and was a heavy crack cocaine user at the time. A third man shot and killed his wife after decending into an alcohol and crack cocaine haze after she left him; a fourth man killed a fellow he was staying at his house and claimed a history of drug and alcohol abuse and a fifth killed a cop after the cop sprayed him with pepper spray.

While this is not a representative sample, it certainly confirms what I have seen in other murder cases that I've seen reported. (Never defended a murder case myself). But a large number of these killings involve drugs in either the sense of impairing judgment/impulse control, stealing money to feed the drug habit which then goes bad, turf wars over drugs and money or a combination of the above.

Decriminalizing drugs is not going to stop these kinds of killings. Keeping your crack-heads and meth addicts off the street does give a societal benefit in that it prevents some really bad violent crimes from occurring. That being said, I do think there needs to be more and better drug treatment and especially mental health treatment in prison, but the idea that drug crimes/violent crimes are separate and distinct catagories is completely wrong in my experience.

Posted by: Scott | Aug 14, 2007 4:00:11 PM

Oh, and despite what the potheads and/or libertarians like to think, we aren't going to be legalizing any drugs soon. It's the perception of the drugs that is key. People don't like weed and the hard drugs, but they like tobacco to some extent and alcohol.

Um, I'm not sure where you live, but here in Seattle, we passed a law that made adult marijuana possession the lowest priority of law enforcement. Since then, people in this city no longer get arrested for it unless they're growing a lot of it. In all practicality, it's basically legal here, and no one cares. Ten years ago, people said that gay marriage will never be legal because people don't like gays. The same thing is going to happen with marijuana. Along the west coast (and Alaska, where possession of marijuana has also technically been legal since 1975), marijuana will likely be more officially decriminalized in a few years.

You might be able to argue the majority is more willing to tolerate the disproportionate impact of drug laws (or other criminal prohibitions) because they are racists (I would still disagree) but most of you surely don't beleive the laws were enacted to carry out a racist program, do you?

If you go back to the beginning of most of the drug prohibitions, the rationale for making certain drugs illegal almost always had racial undertones. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, opium was first made illegal specifically because it was a habit of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. Cocaine was made illegal (in the late 1800s it was a common ingredient in a number of wines, tonics, and other products) because it was believed to make black men want to rape white women. Marijuana was made illegal based upon scare tactics that it was something that the Mexicans were trying to get us hooked on (and also because it supposedly made white women sleep with non-whites). Even the crack-cocaine disparity in sentencing traces its roots to a rationale that was based upon race.

Posted by: thehim | Aug 14, 2007 4:00:57 PM

Any of you "legalize drugs" drum-beaters have parents hooked on drugs? Kids? Siblings? Friends? Co-workers? Any of you have any relations with people for whom the single most important thing in life is how they're going to score again?

You get less of what you punish.

Posted by: Tim | Aug 14, 2007 4:08:35 PM

One thing that you're not taking into account is the effect that drug prohibition has had on the purity of certain drugs. Meth is a good example. Back when methamphetamines used to be a more commonly prescribed drug, it was prescribed in amounts and purity levels that were much safer than the "ice" that comes from Mexico today. As the illegal black market developed for those who wanted to use it without prescription model, people learned how to make it on their own, and it became impossible to determine the purity. As a result, over the years, the purity of meth has gone way up. Once we put the Sudafed behind the counter, Mexican-based groups have been making even more pure forms, creating the kinds of serious addiction problems that never would have happened if the lower purity meth was just left available for people to buy in the first place.

I agree that a lot of property crime is related to drugs, but should certainly still be punished. But allowing for maintenance treatment of addicts, like they do in places like Sydney and Zurich, has shown to be effective in cutting back on the crime that surrounds areas where more drug use happens. In fact, in Sydney, they threatened to close down the clinic where addicts could receive heroin injections, and the neighbors protested saying they didn't want to go back to the days when the addicts were stealing from them.

Posted by: thehim | Aug 14, 2007 4:11:36 PM

Imprisonment is almost universally based on a convict's record. A record of violent crime could lead to imprisonment when the convict is arrested for "only" a drug crime. He may still be a violent man. Most prisoners have both drug and violent offenses. I wonder what the racial composition of those imprisoned only and solely for drug "crimes" is? The real problem is that prison does not rehabilitate or frighten off even that small percentage of convicts who would respond to rehabilitation or good old-fashioned fear, because of the PC wussiness of the prison regimes.

Posted by: Robert Speirs | Aug 14, 2007 4:13:56 PM

You get less of what you punish.

Incorrect. In Holland, where marijuana use is legal, they have much lower rates of marijuana use (especially among teenagers) and overall drug abuse than in the United States. The major factor in determining the amount of drug use (and especially drug abuse) in a country tends to be how well they take care of their poorest citizens.

Posted by: thehim | Aug 14, 2007 4:15:47 PM

The most worrying part of the growth in the prison-industrial complex is the constituency it creates for even more harsh laws and longer incarceration. The biggest opponents of sane drug laws are the prison guard unions. In fact, I saw somewhere that the prison guards were the largest contributors to the DEMOCRATIC party in California last cycle. So who does that leave to speak up for reform?

Posted by: robsalk | Aug 14, 2007 4:18:33 PM

The real problem is that prison does not rehabilitate or frighten off even that small percentage of convicts who would respond to rehabilitation or good old-fashioned fear, because of the PC wussiness of the prison regimes.

Actually, the reason that prison does not rehabilitate drug users has nothing to do with the "PC wussiness" of prisons. It has to do with the fact that many prisons are breeding grounds for gang activity, so that when a young kid with no record goes to prison, he comes out of there with a record (making it harder to find a job or go to school) and with more gang connections (which usually leads to him becoming a drug dealer).

Posted by: thehim | Aug 14, 2007 4:19:01 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.