« NeoCon Mad Libs | Main | Playing Terrorists? »

October 04, 2007

The Big Issues

At 10am this morning, Senators Webb and Schumer, along with Representative Maloney, will be holding a Joint Economic Committee hearing on mass incarceration in the US.

"The United States has experienced a sharp increase in its prison population in the past thirty years. From the 1920s to the mid-1970s, the incarceration rate in the United States remained steady at approximately 110 prisoners per 100,000 people. Today, the incarceration rate is 737 inmates per 100,000 residents, comprising 2.1 million persons in federal, state, and local prisons. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but now has 25 percent of its prisoners. There are approximately 5 million Americans under the supervision of the correctional system, including parole, probation, and other community supervision sanctions....The JEC will examine why the United States has such a disproportionate share of the world’s prison population, as well as ways to address this issue that responsibly balance public safety and the high social and economic costs of imprisonment."

It's a very, very good thing that the Democrats are willing to, at the least, begin looking into this issue. You can watch the hearing live here -- though it's not working for me. You can also read the fact sheet put out by the Webb people -- which show that they're taking this hearing seriously -- below the fold.


§ The United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. While the United States currently incarcerates 750 inmates per 100,000 persons, the world average rate is 166 per 100,000 persons. Russia, the country with the second highest incarceration rate, imprisons 624 per 100,000 persons. Compared to its democratic, advanced market economy counterparts, the United States has more people in prison by several orders of magnitude. Although crime rates have decreased since 1990, the rate of imprisonment has continued to increase.

§ Growth in the prison population is due to changing policy, not increased crime. Many criminal justice experts have found that the increase in the incarceration rate is the product of changes in penal policy and practice, not changes in crime rates. Changes in sentencing, both in terms of time served and the range of offenses meriting incarceration, underlie the growth in the prison population.

§ Changes in drug policy have had the single greatest impact on criminal justice policy. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created mandatory minimum sentences for possession of specific amounts of cocaine. The Act instituted a 100-to-1 differential in the treatment of powder and crack cocaine, treating possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine the same as possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine. Crack cocaine is typically consumed by the poor, while powder cocaine, a significantly more expensive drug, is consumed by wealthier users. Mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack-cocaine users are comparable (and harsher in certain cases) to sentences for major drug dealers.

§ The composition of prison admissions has also shifted toward less serious offenses, characterized by parole violations and drug offenses. In 2005, four out of five drug arrests were for possession and one out of five were for sales. The crime history for three-quarters of drug offenders in state prisons involved non-violent or drug offenses.

§ The prison system has a disproportionate impact on minority communities. African Americans, who make-up 12.4 percent of the population, represent more than half of all prison inmates, compared to one-third twenty years ago. Although African Americans constitute 14 percent of regular drug users, they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56 percent of persons in state prisons for drug crimes. African Americans serve nearly as much time in federal prisons for drug offenses as whites do for violent crimes.

§ The U.S. prison system has enormous economic costs associated with prison construction and operation, productivity losses, and wage effects. In 2006, states spent an estimated $2 billion on prison construction, three times the amount they were spending fifteen years earlier. The combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections total over $200 billion annually. In addition to these costs, the incarceration rate has significant costs associated with the productivity of both prisoners and ex-offenders. The economic output of prisoners is mostly lost to society while they are imprisoned. Negative productivity effects continue after release. This wage penalty grows with time, as previous imprisonment can reduce the wage growth of young men by some 30 percent.

§ Prisons are housing many of the nation’s mentally ill. Prisons are absorbing the cost of housing the nation’s mentally ill. The number of mentally ill in prison is nearly five times the number in inpatient mental hospitals. Large numbers of mentally ill inmates, as well as inmates with HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis also raise serious questions regarding the costs and distribution of health care resources.

§ The United States faces enormous problems of offender reentry and recidivism. The number of ex-offenders reentering their communities has increased fourfold in the past two decades. On average, however, two out of every three released prisoners will be rearrested and one in two will return to prison within three years of release.

October 4, 2007 | Permalink


Ezra: this is an excellent post. Perhaps you mentioned it and I didn't read carefully enough, but what about privately owned prison facilities? Certainly they raise a multitude of ethical questions that Congress should be asking as well.

Posted by: Andrew Slack | Oct 4, 2007 10:43:40 AM

It's a gutsy move. Politicians have been elected on a platform of "Book 'em, Danno" for decades. And most whites, regardless of political persuasion, still don't realize how their prejudices have been perpetuated and exploited through the explosion of mandatory incarceration laws for non-violent drug offenses.

People hear about someone committing murder because of "drugs" and then hear about all the "drug crime" that occurs in black areas, and they don't know to look beyond the vague references to what's really happening.

Posted by: Stephen | Oct 4, 2007 10:47:40 AM

I hope they reach out to certain Republican politicians. This is an issue which can appeal to the Christian Right, as demonstrated by this Times article from a couple years ago:


There was also a NYT magazine article, but I can't find it.

Posted by: Sam | Oct 4, 2007 11:03:33 AM

"Although crime rates have decreased since 1990, the rate of imprisonment has continued to increase."

That's my main problem. No one has shown that the crime rate hasn't been decreasing because of the increased incarceration rate. Or in spite of it either, for that matter. I think everyone involved deserves some sort of look at where the correlation lies. I'm not holding my breath, however. The extent of the dialogue is "bastards need to go to jail!" versus "we put more people in jail than others, there is obviously something wrong/our high incarceration rate serves no useful purpose other than propaganda."

I think both stances are absolutely ridiculous.

Posted by: Fnor | Oct 4, 2007 12:39:41 PM

I get the impression this is tied to a documentary from the Discovery Channel which Ted Koppel has produced on prison overcrowding (he was on Dan Abrams MSNBC show last night). I'm all for the hearing, and the facts are depressing... but I wonder how much real impact there is to be had here. Our national mindset aboutcrimes, prison, and punishment hasn't moved much, and I'm not sure overcrowding and warehousing are either dramatic enough... or "sexy" enough... to do the trick. A lot of this stuff just makes people uncomfortable. I suspect that it's only going to be when things get violent that people will really agitate for substantial change. Which is a shame. Or, I think we need to keep looking to find an angle that can really get people interested in seeing this for what it is.

Posted by: weboy | Oct 4, 2007 1:04:49 PM

One million drug offense prisoners doing hard time at any given time. More millions have done hard time for the same offenses at some time. Perhaps ten million more suffer with life ruining, unnecessary felony convictions for the same reason, even if they got probation.

One hundred million addicts saved? Maybe not one.

Meantime back at the economy: we had (have?) until recently a 1939 level federal minimum wage equivalent ($4.50/hr, w/no taxes in FDR's era -- adjusted CPI-U) to combine with our drug prohibition. What do we naturally get?: street gangs selling prohibited substances. Only difference between the today and the '30s: the gangs are African-American and Latino instead of Irish, Italian and Jewish.

What a wonderful set of ass-backwards policies.

Posted by: Denis Drew | Oct 4, 2007 1:53:09 PM

Another aspect worth bearing in mind is that the massive imprisonment of urban populations in rural prisons has the effect of reducing political representation of cities and inflating that of rural areas, which means more political power for whites and less for minorities. This is not entirely accidental.

Posted by: Herschel | Oct 4, 2007 2:03:54 PM

One sixth of the prison population is seriously mentally ill.

This must be the kinder gentler conservatism I have heard so much about.

I've written a little on that:


Posted by: M. Simon | Oct 7, 2007 2:18:20 AM

Let me try a clickable link:

Jim Webb On Mass Incarceration.

Posted by: M. Simon | Oct 7, 2007 2:19:31 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.