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Four years of declining prison populations
January 13, 2014 12:27 PM   Subscribe

"I was startled and encouraged to see that under current policies, we are at a two decade-year low in the prison admission rate. To provide historical perspective, peg the change to Presidential terms: When President Obama was elected, the rate of prison admission was just 3% below its 2006 level, which was very probably the highest it has ever been in U.S. history. But by the end of Obama’s first term, it had dropped to a level not seen since President Clinton’s first year in office." -- Good news everybody, prison admissions in the US are at a two decade low, with total prison population decling for the fourth year in a row, leading Keith Humphreys to wonder why this hasn't been reported more widely.
posted by MartinWisse (46 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously

Let's hope we see one of these posts every year.
posted by Area Man at 12:42 PM on January 13 [4 favorites]


Presumably some people would see the other, alarmist side of the coin and think, "This means more criminals are running around" although what it actually means is that there's less crime, both through decriminalization of certain acts and a usually-dropping national crime rate.
posted by JauntyFedora at 12:46 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


This really is great news and should be more widely reported. I'd be really interested to know what the major drivers of the change are.
posted by yoink at 12:50 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


From three years ago, something that as far as I have been aware has yet to pass, Humphreys pointed out that eventually one of the released convicts will do something horrible (his point was about the release of California prisoners, but it could also happen with someone who was funneled through a drug court, say). When that happens, the declining number of prisoners will not be seen as a good thing. I can only hope that this does not cause an uptick with fear and sudden harsher sentencing.
posted by Hactar at 12:50 PM on January 13


Hactar:
I can only hope that this does not cause an uptick with fear and sudden harsher sentencing.
It will probably depend on the place and politics at the time. I'd guess if a politician doesn't have any better ideas they could run a "Convict released by thug-loving governor murders nun" ad, as mentioned by the article. If it seems to work it could snowball across the country. Let's hope the news and political cycles don't line up properly for that.
posted by charred husk at 12:58 PM on January 13


Hooray!
posted by oceanjesse at 1:00 PM on January 13


I was actually just listening to LA Mayor Garcetti's press conference on the across-the-board decrease in LA crime stats for 2013 before I saw this. Seems like it's the other side of the coin for that, something especially good in California, where we could use less prisoners (and less prisons).
posted by Punkey at 1:02 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


Thanks Obama.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 1:05 PM on January 13 [16 favorites]


It's only good news if there's also a drop in violent crime.

As appears to be the case.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:08 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Rick Nevin blames the decline of lead.

TL;DR Preschool lead exposure lowers IQ 10-15 points. People in the 80-90 IQ range commit a majority of violent crime. Declining lead -> higher IQ -> less violence -> lower crime -> emptying prisons.
posted by The Giant Squid at 1:10 PM on January 13 [7 favorites]


This is because bankers don't go to jail.
posted by srboisvert at 1:12 PM on January 13 [7 favorites]


The whole "Get Tough on Crime" thing really began as part of Nixon's Southern Strategy. It was an effort to lure racist-minded voters away from the Democratic party. (In an essay from the early 70s, Gore Vidal wrote that the phrase "Law and Order" was basically code language for "Get the blacks".) It wasn't until the Clinton era that it became fully embraced by Democrats as well, and now it's more-or-less understood that any viable candidate for national office has to do a whole lot of huffing and puffing about wanting stricter laws and harsher prison terms for evil-doers. I doubt you'll hear much from the Obama camp about this achievement, as I'm sure the Democratic leadership will put pressure on him to keep mum about it.
posted by Atom Eyes at 1:12 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


why this hasn't been reported more widely.

The phrase is "if it bleeds it leads," not, "if it staunches it launches."
posted by JHarris at 1:14 PM on January 13 [17 favorites]


It's only good news if there's also a drop in violent crime.

Not necessarily. It is possible for a decline in overall prison admissions to coincide with an increase in violent crime, if there was a larger decrease in imprisonments for non-violent crime.
posted by JHarris at 1:22 PM on January 13


I blame rampant gay marriage and the spreading legalization of marijuana for this trend. Come on people, embrace the correlation!
posted by chavenet at 1:24 PM on January 13 [10 favorites]


It's only good news if there's also a drop in violent crime.

As appears to be the case.


I think it's ESPECIALLY good news if there's also a drop in violent crime, but lower prison populations are good for other reasons, including:

1) Possibly we are providing different options (e.g. treatment or diversion programs for drug offenders) than prison.

2) Potentially this is the result of more reasonable sentencing guidelines for certain crimes.

3) It could mean that ideas like community corrections are catching on and we are providing more helpful and appropriate ways for inmates to re-enter the general population.

4) It's cheaper not to have so many people in prison.

5) People in prison lose skills and can have a hard time adjusting to life outside prison (see previous community corrections point) -- you aren't living an ordinary, day-to-day life with stuff like grocery shopping so the longer you're in the harder it can be to structure and cope with the circumstances when you are released.

6) More parents are able to be with their children instead of, you know, in prison.

7) Communities not suffering as much from having people in and out of prison and thus gaining stability.

8) If fewer people are in prison, hopefully it won't be normalized for the next generation; I've taught kids who just assumed they'd go to prison at some point and it would be awesome if this assumption went away because prison didn't seem inevitable.

9) This is kind of like the one about being expensive, but prisons are often really fucking crowded, like over capacity, and it's dangerous and costly and super problematic in many ways.

10) Prison is not a happy place to be and if people can be not in prison instead of in prison, I think that's great.

And this is just a partial list off the top of my head! There are many other good things too about people not being in prison!

I get that what you probably actually mean is that if crime isn't going down and the police aren't doing their jobs and people aren't being kept safe, those numbers are bad. There is a reason we have prisons (even if some people don't agree with it) and if communities aren't being kept safe then yeah, that's a problem, but "decrease in the number of violent crimes" isn't the only metric by which we should measure our feelings on dropping prison populations.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:25 PM on January 13 [13 favorites]


It's only good news if there's also a drop in violent crime.

Not true at all, I think. If it just meant we were ruining fewer lives for things like nonviolent drug possession, that alone would be an amazing thing. Plenty of evidence that being in prison messes up your life both during and after, so when we put people in prison for either (a) trivial crimes, or (b) things that shouldn't be crimes, we cause needless harm. Reducing that is a valuable goal in itself, completely unrelated to violent crime.
posted by wildcrdj at 1:29 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


The Giant Squid: "Rick Nevin blames the decline of lead.

TL;DR Preschool lead exposure lowers IQ 10-15 points. People in the 80-90 IQ range commit a majority of violent crime. Declining lead -> higher IQ -> less violence -> lower crime -> emptying prisons.
"

Previous and Previouser
posted by Big_B at 1:29 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


The unspoken #4 from the last link: Fear of a Black President. The only way a certain very vocal and venomous part of the electorate will report this as good news during this administration is if they can somehow give Joe Arpaio credit for it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:30 PM on January 13


Hopefully this will mean the increasing insolvency of for-profit prisons.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:36 PM on January 13 [5 favorites]


Preschool lead exposure lowers IQ 10-15 points. People in the 80-90 IQ range commit a majority of violent crime. Declining lead -> higher IQ -> less violence -> lower crime -> emptying prisons.

Interesting. Though there's no way Republicans will ever credit environmental and health regulations with decreasing crime.
posted by Foosnark at 1:36 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Hopefully this will mean the increasing insolvency of for-profit prisons.

Many private prisons have guaranteed profit and occupancy built into their contracts with the state. Which is sick.
posted by srboisvert at 1:41 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


Interesting. Though there's no way Republicans will ever credit environmental and health regulations with decreasing crime.

Hippies in California demanded catalytic converters (which eventually caused the phase-out of leaded gas), which probably did more to reduce violent crime than all of the 'get-tough-policing' implemented by sheriffs in the Sunbelt (Arizona and Louisiana, I'm looking at you).
posted by The Giant Squid at 1:58 PM on January 13 [8 favorites]


But what shall we do when we can no longer huddle in fear?
posted by overeducated_alligator at 2:04 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Many private prisons have guaranteed profit and occupancy built into their contracts with the state. Which is sick.

This seems based on this letter (pdf). I'd be interested to see the actual contracts. I can imagine the requirement is payment for 90% occupancy regardless of actual inmate population. It's what I would ask for if it were my company.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:15 PM on January 13


well yeah, IndigoJones, of course these contracts don't mean that the state is mandated to arrest random citizens to keep the occupancy rates up. It means that there's no budgetary incentive not to throw people in prison instead of considering an alternative sentence, since they're already paying for it.
posted by theodolite at 2:21 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


leading Keith Humphreys to wonder why this hasn't been reported more widely.

I suspect that it's because no one wants to take the credit/blame (depending on your politics) for it.
posted by empath at 2:23 PM on January 13


Well, it hasn't been widely shouted about by the relevant government agencies as that would be counter-productive, given the irrational mess the average voter seems to be.

So lets just rah-rah quietly and continue making small fixes to the nation so that no one comes in and wrecks 8 years of work in a few months.
posted by Slackermagee at 2:24 PM on January 13 [2 favorites]


well yeah, IndigoJones, of course these contracts don't mean that the state is mandated to arrest random citizens to keep the occupancy rates up. It means that there's no budgetary incentive not to throw people in prison instead of considering an alternative sentence, since they're already paying for it.

Interestingly it would make it so the private prison has incentive to push for policies that actually lower incarceration rates, so they can take as much of that 90% occupancy budget as possible in pure profit without the overhead of actually having that many prisoners. Though there's probably a balancing act they'd have to play for the next time the contract is revisited, because it's hard to make the case for budgeting for 90% capacity when you're consistently well below that.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:29 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


IndigoJones: "It's only good news if there's also a drop in violent crime."

We as a society will not advance our prison system until we let go of this prejudice. There is less violent crime on our streets than at any time in living statistical memory, and we imprison people on an astonishingly vaster level than any society in history, even with this minuscule reduction. It's time to accept that violent crime will go up and reduce the prison population anyway. Anything else means sacrificing the lives of others by the millions for a paranoid craving of inviolable safety that has never been and need never be a condition of human civilization.
posted by koeselitz at 2:40 PM on January 13 [10 favorites]


But what shall we do when we can no longer huddle in fear?

Huddle for warmth, apparently.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 2:48 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


It's time to accept that violent crime will go up and reduce the prison population anyway. Anything else means sacrificing the lives of others by the millions for a paranoid craving of inviolable safety that has never been and need never be a condition of human civilization.

That would involve some form of courage both from the electorate and the elected. Neither of them seem to show it.
posted by Talez at 3:49 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


Interestingly it would make it so the private prison has incentive to push for policies that actually lower incarceration rates, so they can take as much of that 90% occupancy budget as possible in pure profit without the overhead of actually having that many prisoners.

This only works if the fixed building/staffing costs do not outweigh the variable costs. It's perfectly possible to imagine a situation where the fixed costs are so high that you're much better off to shoot for 95%+.

Then, of course, you run into the question of who will build/profit from the next prison.
posted by jaduncan at 4:42 PM on January 13


This is about state and federal prison, so I don't know how much Obama has to do with it. And the trend has been steadily downward since the middle of the Bush administration.
posted by John Cohen at 5:20 PM on January 13


This is about state and federal prison, so I don't know how much Obama has to do with it. And the trend has been steadily downward since the middle of the Bush administration.

Obviously, the causative agent here is 2004's Little Black Book, starring Brittany Murphy and Stephen Tobolowsky, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:02 PM on January 13 [3 favorites]


I blame the internet. No, really.
posted by rosswald at 7:15 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


How much of this is the effect of electronically monitored home detention?
posted by telstar at 9:13 PM on January 13


Crime rates falling. Demographics / aging population (related). California overcrowding litigation. State budget crises during Great Recession. Community push-back against mass incarceration. Also -- decline remains modest (but good start).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:08 PM on January 13


Interesting side context: Today on NPR, Charlie Beck was saying that in 2013 Los Angeles had it's lowest crime rate since 1949.
posted by klangklangston at 10:16 PM on January 13 [1 favorite]


It's time to accept that violent crime will go up and reduce the prison population anyway.

Raise The Crime Rate, last year.
Statistics are notoriously slippery, but the figures that suggest that violence has been disappearing in the United States contain a blind spot so large that to cite them uncritically, as the major papers do, is to collude in an epic con. Uncounted in the official tallies are the hundreds of thousands of crimes that take place in the country’s prison system, a vast and growing residential network whose forsaken tenants increasingly bear the brunt of America’s propensity for anger and violence.
posted by migurski at 10:18 PM on January 13 [6 favorites]


Where does the fact that a person convicted after a long and expensive trial, sentenced to 10 years, actually serves 10 months at most and is released fit in? It does happen - and often. The bankers and stockbrokers serve no time, but continue to live in comfort in their own homes. The small-time crook goes to prison but rarely stays there for very long; he's released in a year or two at most - to a halfway house, where some social service agency struggles to keep him out of jail, to find him a job and get him back on track. This is almost always an impossible task - he's now a felon and no one will give him a job (why should they, when there are so many others looking for a job who have no criminal record?), he's living in an apartment building full of ex-cons and has nothing to do all day except sit around and exchange miseries with his neighbors. We want to put these guys back into the labor force, but where and how do we manage to place them in a position where they have access to the same things they got into trouble for in the past - like cash registers with money in them, alcohol, weapons, pretty young women, gullible old ladies, or even gangmembers with a score to make? And how do we give them the jobs other young families need so badly - jobs that keep them off the welfare rolls?

If less people are doing time, it's because they're plea-bargaining themselves out of a jail term or because they're being released early or because the police and lawyers and judges know it's a lot of paperwork which will do virtually nothing to change the person's life for the better. I don't think the idea of prison scares anyone anymore

There's no easy answer - heck, there's no answer at all.
posted by aryma at 11:05 PM on January 13




How about putting them on government assistance? It might be cheaper to pay ex cons a small stipend than funding a vast apparatus of social workers struggling to do the impossible. Pay them to go back to school and learn literature or auto repair or some other interesting pursuit. Why not treat their condition as a chain of misfortune that began long ago, when their parents or grandparents were born into poverty and social scorn?

There are lots of reasons why young men go to jail. Poverty. The need to remove unskilled men from the workforce. Fear of black people. The need for scapegoats. No established mechanisms for initiating youths into adulthood.

With so many social forces pushing to disempower poor young men, it's better to just give them money.

posted by Zpt2718 at 1:10 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


Oh, but how would you ever convince people that that's not "rewarding criminals"? There are already enough people howling about how "undeserved" gov't assistance is.
They're wrong, of course, but they howl, anyway.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 3:29 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]


But who will make 99% of the US Army's body armour now?

MADE IN THE USA
posted by longbaugh at 6:16 AM on January 14


> Oh, but how would you ever convince people that that's not "rewarding criminals"? There are already enough people howling about how "undeserved" gov't assistance is.

The depressing thing about America is that the majority seems to have ceded control to a tiny minority of crazies, and if you suggest making changes, they always point out that the crazies will object.

Explain the rationality - that it will be much better for everyone in the long run, that it leads to less crime, a stronger economy, and fewer unemployed people. The crazies will scream, and sometimes will win, but we shouldn't give up on trying to do the correct thing just because of them.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:50 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]


The depressing thing about America is that the majority seems to have ceded control to a tiny minority of crazies, and if you suggest making changes, they always point out that the crazies will object.
The polling I've seen has said that the majority of people generally feel that criminals are not treated harshly enough in the USA. Don't assume that because a view seems like a minority one that is is a minority one.
posted by thegears at 4:02 PM on January 14


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