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Lots of lockups
July 27, 2005 10:54 AM   Subscribe

The Prison Policy Initiative conducts research and advocacy on incarceration policy. Some interesting data include the proliferation of prisons in the US over the last century, disenfranchisement of potential black voters, global incarceration rates and percentage of US population under control of the criminal justice system.
posted by Gyan (42 comments total)

 
At some level, one has to consider that the increased incarceration rates are a function of a growing population, improvements in law enforcement and investigatory abilities, and an increase in the number of laws that exist that can be broken.

To that extent, the numbers of incarcerated seems less historically anomalous.
posted by dios at 11:01 AM on July 27, 2005


To that extent, the numbers of incarcerated seems less historically anomalous.

But, historically anomalous or not, would you agree that numbers like the 7.4% of adults in Georgia controlled by the criminal justice system indicate a need for major reform in the justice system?
posted by Espy Gillespie at 11:08 AM on July 27, 2005


No.

I was say that indicate that there needs to be a reform of social conditions to keep people from being criminals. The justice system didn't make them criminals.
posted by dios at 11:11 AM on July 27, 2005


From your first comment:

...an increase in the number of laws that exist that can be broken.

and your second:

The justice system didn't make them criminals.

Well, I guess technically it was the legislative system that made them criminals.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 11:15 AM on July 27, 2005


[...] increased incarceration rates are a function of a growing population [...]
After browsing the links, I'd say the Prison Policy Initiative does a pretty good job of presenting rates of incarceration, and not absolute numbers of inmates.
posted by Triplanetary at 11:15 AM on July 27, 2005


Good point Espy. I still submit that the reform that is necessary is social/famililal. We shouldn't get rid of laws only to reduce an incarceration rate, if we assume them to be good laws.

As for Triplanetary's point, I think the rates can change based on number of laws and enforcement. The population issue only effects the absolute number.

My thought is this: there are more laws now. For instance, it might not have been against the law to steal wifi in 1900, but it is now. So, how ever many people get incarcerated for that, it would skew the trends. The converse is true, too: one isn't likely to get arrested for having wire cutters like you might have in the old west. But I'd suspect, on average, the amount of new crimes would logically increase the rates. Add to that the more efficient enforcement of crime, and I don't see the numbers are anamolous. With forensic advances, its much easier to incarcerate people when a law is broken.
posted by dios at 11:26 AM on July 27, 2005


I think the biggest contributor is mandatory minimums and more punitive drug laws, in general.
posted by Gyan at 11:29 AM on July 27, 2005


Another consideration: the quality of care and protection provided at prisons. I suppose that a long sentence in jail in 1900 probably suggested a rather short life expectancy. I suppose that a long sentence now would have a much longer expectancy.
posted by dios at 11:35 AM on July 27, 2005


Besides, the US rate is skewed compared to rest of the world(see global incarceration rates: Japan 58, Britain 142, France 91, Canada 116, US 478). So this "more efficient enforcement of crime" and "the amount of new crimes" is unique to the US among (developed) nations.
posted by Gyan at 11:40 AM on July 27, 2005


dios, I think I agree with you - you point to probable causes for increased rates along the time - the linked map is still damming though: US rates are highest than China's, Iran, Saudi Arabia. They are far higher than the ones other Western democracies. I think there is more to it than only the number of laws growing (specially because other countries must also have had the increase in the number of laws).
posted by nkyad at 11:40 AM on July 27, 2005


dios, are you suggesting that in places like Canada and, well, pretty much the rest of the planet, where we have incarceration rates that are a fraction of those in the US, that our streets are filled with uncaptured criminals?
posted by glider at 11:45 AM on July 27, 2005


glider, it seems like the idea would be that places like Canada have more refined social/familial structures than the US.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 11:51 AM on July 27, 2005


I don't suggest that glider. To be honest, I don't know enough about Canada to comment. My suspicion is that our law enforcement is much more advanced and more effective; that the relative budgets of the law enforcement agencies would be much higher here. I also suspect that we have more laws, but I'm not confident on that point. One explanation that I would give a lot of credence to: you don't have the problem of poor black communities to the extent the United States does. Those communities---their historical origins and their current "values"---are most certainly not as prevalent in Canada. So I suspect that would alter it, as well.
posted by dios at 11:55 AM on July 27, 2005


dios: I'm surprised you'd say "and an increase in the number of laws that exist that can be broken" like it's a good thing.
posted by absalom at 11:58 AM on July 27, 2005


We shouldn't get rid of laws only to reduce an incarceration rate, if we assume them to be good laws.

How do you feel about, say, drug laws? Is the law against adults smoking pot at home a good law? And how many laws do you break routinely that you think it's okay to lock "those people" up for (but not you)?

I never met a law-&-order type who wasn't a hypocrite.
posted by davy at 12:02 PM on July 27, 2005


For instance, it might not have been against the law to steal wifi in 1900, but it is now.

Is this true? It is an actual crime? Even if the AP is wide open? What country are we talking about on this dios?
posted by a3matrix at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2005


Well, absalom: laws exists at the will of the majority. If the majority sets the line there, then I am fine with it. If a law doesn't have majority support, it will be overturned. Thus, as the existence of whatever number of laws is a function of democractic imperative, I don't see anything right or wrong about it. It is value neutral.
posted by dios at 12:04 PM on July 27, 2005


a3matrix: previously.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 12:05 PM on July 27, 2005


How do you feel about, say, drug laws? Is the law against adults smoking pot at home a good law? And how many laws do you break routinely that you think it's okay to lock "those people" up for (but not you)?

I've said before that I am a libertarian/authoritarian. I don't care where the line is set, but I have little sympathy for people who cross it at their own risk and get caught. In that sense, I am more properly called a Madisonian.

I don't have a position on drug laws. I suspect we are better off with them being illegal, but I also believe that the majority thinks such laws are a good thing. And I defer to them. If enough people express a desire that pot be legal, then I suspect the government would respond.

But the guidelines are set. And if one can't operate within those guidelines, then one only has oneself to hold responsible. I myself have broken laws, and its always been at my own risk (almost exclusively automotive infractions). If I get caught with that, I have little to complain about.
posted by dios at 12:10 PM on July 27, 2005


Dios:

Not all laws are just. That is why we have specific processes for having unjust laws removed from the books. Furthermore, just as new laws are needed to handle new technologies, antiquated laws are stricken from the record or left on the records but are not uninforced.

This particular disenfranchisement of blacks is racism, pure and simple. We had a set of drug laws that had a certian penalty range attached to them. Mandatory sentencing was introduced after it became common knowledge that those laws were broken by poor minorities more often than middle class white people.

There's quite a bit of hubbub lately about judges attempting to legislate. This is an example of legislators attempting to judge.
posted by elderling at 12:13 PM on July 27, 2005


Heh. That guy got arrested for connecting to an open access point? I will refrain from further comment regarding that thread (too bad I missed it) save this. Aside from acting a bit conspicuosly when the home owner came outside, he really did nothing wrong. An open AP is open and it should be up to the owner to lock it down if they so choose. What he was doing with the AP may be the issue I would guess.
Thanks for the link Espy

On the prison issue. I have always felt that too many people get sent to jail for petty things. While others avoid it for more serious offences. I guess it all comes down to the lawyer you weild in court. Not exactly fair.
posted by a3matrix at 12:14 PM on July 27, 2005


"Well, absalom: laws exists at the will of the majority." and herin lies the problem. Blacks are a minority and therefore whites have greater representation. This is also an example of Tyranny of the Majority.
posted by elderling at 12:21 PM on July 27, 2005


This particular disenfranchisement of blacks is racism

Non-black inmates can't vote either. Is it possible that the non-felon voting rule might have something to do with the status as felons as opposed to skin color?

So is your argument that all laws with a disparate impact are racist? Should the fact that many members of your own race can't seem to find it in themselves to comply with the law render the law unfair as to you?

I find it shameful to lay all the blame of black incarceration on the hands of "racist drug laws." Poor blacks shouldn't be doing drugs in the first place. They should be spending the money on efforts to be come un-poor.

In reality, it isn't a racist thing. Poor urban blacks aren't incarcerated and don't do drugs because they are black.... it's because they are poor. A sad re-inforcing problem in the black community is more to blame than the system. I found this recent article compelling: Why Our Black Families Are Failing By William Raspberry. And its something my favorite Senator (Moynihan) mentioned a couple decades ago.

The problem isn't our incarceration rate. The problem isn't that pot should be legal. The problem is that due to historical effects, large numbers of blacks live in abject poverty without strong families surrounded by a hip-hop culture that celebrate criminality. Those conditions are to blame for that "disenfranchisement."
posted by dios at 12:23 PM on July 27, 2005


Too bad I couldn't spell wield. Sorry.
posted by a3matrix at 12:32 PM on July 27, 2005


dios writes "Poor blacks shouldn't be doing drugs in the first place."

Some people believe the problem is not that "poor blacks are doing drugs" but that the police seems to arrest far more "poor blacks doing drugs" than it arrests "[anything] white doing drugs". Even if you analise it proportionally. And the problem here is more that of racist society (and therefore a racist police and race-biased laws) than of some fundamental "disenfranchisement".
posted by nkyad at 12:34 PM on July 27, 2005


dios writes "To be honest, I don't know enough about Canada to comment. My suspicion is that our law enforcement is much more advanced and more effective; that the relative budgets of the law enforcement agencies would be much higher here. I also suspect that we have more laws, but I'm not confident on that point"

These assumptions are all very weak, and your entire argument relies on them. We're not just talking about Canada, here. The entire developed world has lower incarceration rates than the U.S. I doubt spending on law enforcement reflects similar disparities (unless, of course, you include costs of imprisonment). It's a very complex issue, though. Some of the factors are addressed in this paper. There's a plot in there that suggests that the U.S. is somewhere in the middle of developed countries on spending on law enforcement. Like I said, though, it's complex.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:39 PM on July 27, 2005


Well, you make it awfully hard to discuss this issue when you establish as a condition of the analysis that the entire country (and therfore all of its policies) is ipse dixit racist.
posted by dios at 12:39 PM on July 27, 2005


"So is your argument that all laws with a disparate impact are racist?"

Nope, if you'll re-read my post you'll see that I said "This particular disenfranchisement..."

"The problem isn't our incarceration rate. The problem isn't that pot should be legal. The problem is that due to historical effects, large numbers of blacks live in abject poverty without strong families surrounded by a hip-hop culture that celebrate criminality."

No, the problem is thinking that there is a "The problem." I never disagreed with your assertion that there is a social basis for this problem as well.

"I find it shameful to lay all the blame of black incarceration on the hands of 'racist drug laws.'"

Yes indeed, that would be shameful. When someone asserts that, I'll be right there with you.
posted by elderling at 12:42 PM on July 27, 2005


There's a plot in there that suggests that the U.S. is somewhere in the middle of developed countries on spending on law enforcement.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:39 PM PST on July 27

Thanks for the link. I'm going to go read it.

I did try to find the graph you referred to. It was the amount of spending as a percentage of GDP. The US was around .6%. Canada was at .7%. But when you look at GDP numbers: 0.6% of the US's GDP vs. 0.7% of Canada's GDP is an enormous gap. The US's GDP is almost 10x that of Canada's. So its enforcement spending is significantly more when you figure the US is spending a trillion dollars a year on law enforcement.
posted by dios at 12:52 PM on July 27, 2005


Shoot I messed up the italics. Oh well.

And the math may be off (translation: I suXX0r at math), so please feel free to correct me. I'm sure I probably messed it up! :)
posted by dios at 12:56 PM on July 27, 2005


dios writes "To be honest, I don't know enough about Canada to comment."

So, don't. By disregarding your own admission you do little but display your ignorance.
posted by clevershark at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2005


well, and the fact that the usas population is 10x more than Canadas might have something to do with that...
posted by Iax at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2005


dios writes "But when you look at GDP numbers: 0.6% of the US's GDP vs. 0.7% of Canada's GDP is an enormous gap. The US's GDP is almost 10x that of Canada's."

Well, yeah, but there are also about 10x as many people in the US as in Canada, so per capita spending is similar. I don't know how else you'd make a comparison.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2005


I wonder about the per-state numbers. Are they measuring the relative harshness of each state's judical system, or are they measuring where our prisons are? I believe that a prisoner is considered a resident of the state in which he is imprisoned. Does Georgia incarcerate that many more people than Mississippi or are those who run afoul of Mississippi's legal system shipped off to Georigia prisons?
posted by bonecrusher at 1:22 PM on July 27, 2005


While the US might spend more on law enforcement, you really have to look at per capita spending on law enforcement if you're going to look at that kind of thing. Comparing based on a percentage of GDP will somewhat reflect the differences in population.


In any event, it's well known among criminologists that the USA has the highest incarceration rate among western nations, by far. The main reason is considered to be mandatory minimum punishments, especially for drug-related offences. In the USA, convictions for drug crimes almost always result in prison sentences (often LONG prison sentences - over five years, for example), whereas drug crimes in most other western nations typically result in shorter prison sentences (under five years), probation, or other alternative measures.
posted by gwenzel at 1:22 PM on July 27, 2005


The USA has insane incarceration rates. I can hardly imagine anyone with a lick of common sense would dispute that. One look at the incarceration rates of first-world countries and you can immediately see that the USA numbers are weird-ass outliers. Something is distinctly wrong there.

laws exists at the will of the majority. If the majority sets the line there, then I am fine with it. If a law doesn't have majority support, it will be overturned. Thus, as the existence of whatever number of laws is a function of democractic imperative, I don't see anything right or wrong about it. It is value neutral.

That sounds a lot like mob rule, instead of enlightened rule.

I'm glad I live in an enlightened-rule country where, for instance, gay marriage is legal despite having a conservative Roman Catholic as Prime Minister and a slim majority of Canadians disapproving of gay marriage.

One can not rely on mob rule for social advancement. Especially so in a strongly religionist country like the USA.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:20 PM on July 27, 2005


Might as well also point out that despite having bizarrely high incarceration rates, the USA still leads in murders, drug use, child abuse, and nearly every other measure of socially-harmful behaviour.

Most of the time I figure the USA is a culture that will never get past its rebellious teenaged years.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:24 PM on July 27, 2005


Add to that the more efficient enforcement of crime

This is amusing. I work in law enforcement. I work with a large database of stolen items (vehicles, etc) and wanted persons and other such things, and we are using 1970s technology. And that's being charitable.

Just last night when I was working, a subject with a warrant was let go because it took too long for a confirmation of his warrant. Oops. Apparently using the advanced bleeding-edge technological apparatus of a telephone and asking for voice confirmation was beyond the capabilities of the crack squad of law enforcement professionals.

Yeah, I'll believe our law enforcement apparatus is "efficient" when stuff like that doesn't happen, and when the laborious individual multi-step validation of each entered record isn't done by hand anymore, but by advanced technology like input validation scripts and the like.

Maybe by 2020 the FBI will give us a category so we can meaningfully enter stolen MP3 players in the database. One can dream.
posted by beth at 5:05 PM on July 27, 2005


i always thought that in a democracy, the rights of the minority were to be protected.
posted by brandz at 7:06 PM on July 27, 2005


"Might as well also point out that despite having bizarrely high incarceration rates, the USA still leads in murders, drug use, child abuse, and nearly every other measure of socially-harmful behaviour."

And, guess which US region leads in having the highest US murder rate ?

* shuffles off whistling Dixie *
posted by troutfishing at 9:05 PM on July 27, 2005


Dammit f_f_f, if you keep talking like this and this I'll have to cancel the hit. I won't get my half-up-front deposit back either; I'll be out a whole 67 cents (US).

Okay troutfishing, what are the numbers on Southern murder convictions -- more black killers or whites? I'd expect the per capita numbers to about equal, or maybe higher for whites.
posted by davy at 9:09 PM on July 27, 2005


Sorry, man. To really shock you, you can lay a bit of that at the feet of Michael Moore. That doc/mockumentary where he does the gun thing, it's got some pretty insightful stuff. Like how fear drives so much of what the USA does, both internally and externally. From an outsider's viewpoint, the USA takes on a whole new light when considering the fear factor.

The USA has a wholly odd social/cultural thing going on within its borders. It's nothing like any of the first-world nations. Canada is much more European than American. America pretty much stands way out there marking its own weird sort of space.

And so you get things like a fairytale belief in the merits of raw capitalism, yet the most incredible government financing of private enterprise. Medical breakthroughs comparable to those of Canada and several European countries, yet a medical care system that has the highest per capita costs and lowest per capita coverage. Some laws that truly set the path that other nations followed, and some that cause completely loony consequences for what are truly innocuous, but illegal, behaviours.

If the US America is not a teenager, it must be schizophrenic.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:30 PM on July 27, 2005


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