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February 21, 2009 11:35 AM   Subscribe

John Pfaff. Five Myths about Prison Growth.
posted by wittgenstein (36 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
If we did start letting people out of jail, especially in this economy without any kind of economic situation, many would return back to crime right away, since they would have no way earn any income.

Of course, if you did try to do that, the anti-crime types would freak out at people "rewarding" criminals.

Fun times.
posted by delmoi at 11:45 AM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


If we did start letting people out of jail, especially in this economy without any kind of economic situation, many would return back to crime right away, since they would have no way earn any income.

Because most people leave prisons with no support, little money (if at all), and no prospects in life, many do turn (or return) to crime. Recidivism is high because of it...and good economy or not, that is the reality many new releases face.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:52 AM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


so non-violent marijuana possessors would return to non-violent marijuana possession?

Oh noes! Won't someone think of the children??
posted by drjimmy11 at 12:00 PM on February 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


so non-violent marijuana possessors would return to non-violent marijuana possession?

More like nonviolent marijuana posessors would turn to petty theft because they can't make ends meet - because they can't get a job with a felony record, because there's plenty of equally qualified people without one applying already.
posted by Orb2069 at 12:05 PM on February 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Myth No. 2: Low-level drug offenders drive prison population growth. It is popular, perhaps almost mandatory, to blame the boom on the War on Drugs. But it is just not true. Only 20 percent of inmates in prisons (as opposed to jails) are locked up for drug offenses, compared with 50 percent for violent crimes and 20 percent for property offenses; most of the drug offenders are in prison for distribution, not possession. Twenty percent is admittedly much larger than approximately 3 percent, which was the fraction of prisoners serving time on drug charges in the 1970s. But if we were to release every prisoner currently serving time for a drug charge, our prison population would drop only from 1.6 million to 1.3 million. That's not much of a decline, compared with the total number of people in prison in the 1970s—about 300,000.
Hmmmm . . . I was convinced that the figures were reversed, that a big majority of current prisoners were drug users and that 20 percent or so were violent offenders.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:06 PM on February 21, 2009


Only 20 percent of inmates in prisons (as opposed to jails) are locked up for drug offenses, compared with 50 percent for violent crimes and 20 percent for property offenses;

Still...if you took that 20% out (or, let's say 15%, just to leave the big dealers behind bars) You'd make a huge dent in overcrowding.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:14 PM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Good point.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:15 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Myth No. 2: Low-level drug offenders drive prison population growth."

Look, if you're gonna start with a straw man, you've already lost me.
posted by facetious at 12:27 PM on February 21, 2009


So, he says that even if we were to let out those drug offenders and decrease the prison pop from 1.6 to 1.3 million, that is still an approximate $10.5 Billion dollar savings.
posted by munchingzombie at 12:31 PM on February 21, 2009


There's a difference between the number of people who are incarcerated for a drug-related offense, and the number who have a drug-related problem (i.e. addiction). In California, an estimated 80-85% of those incarcerated have a substance abuse problem, but only 20% were convicted of a drug-related offense. That doesn't mean that drug use didn't have anything to do with the crime for which they were convicted, but it wasn't a direct possession or sales charge.

People are released from prison without having ever been given access to drug treatment or job training or anything else that would have addressed any underlying problems, and then we wonder why nothing changes and they end up back in prison.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:36 PM on February 21, 2009 [7 favorites]


And the other thing is, they do background checks now on just about every job, I mean if you apply for a job at Target or fed-ex they do a background check, so for someone just out of jail the 'basic' jobs that most people take for granted as being available are not.
posted by delmoi at 12:45 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Myth No. 2: Low-level drug offenders drive prison population growth."

Look, if you're gonna start with a straw man, you've already lost me.


I've heard people say this. Why do you call it a straw man?
posted by Bookhouse at 12:45 PM on February 21, 2009


The elephant in the room seems to me to be the question: what is the role of mental illness in incarceration?

I've seen (can't remember where) reports that up to 75% of the prison population in some state prisons require psychiatric support or medication. If that's the case, wouldn't it make sense to start replacing prisons with institutions designed for medical treatment instead, with an emphasis on treatment, support, and rehabilitation instead of punishment?
posted by cstross at 12:46 PM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Hmmmm . . . I was convinced that the figures were reversed, that a big majority of current prisoners were drug users and that 20 percent or so were violent offenders.

I would be that a lot of those 'property' crimes and violent crimes were a result of people getting money for drugs, turf warfare over drug territory, etc. I think he is waaayyy too quick to dismiss our 'war on drugs' as a huge reason why prison populations have exploded.
posted by UseyurBrain at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2009 [6 favorites]


The chart on page 5 of this pdf is really startling. Clearly a lot of the population that used to be housed in mental institutions is currently in prison. There was a lot of abuse in the bad old days of involuntary treatment in mental institutions, but the people who were turned out of the hospitals had to go somewhere. It seems they go to prisons. And what help are they likely to get there?

Teachers see these kids when they're in the school system: Violent, unpredictable, unfeeling or feeling way too much, good candidates for meth addiction or alcoholism (if not already there). You can spot this in a kid at 8 or 9 years old, if not younger. What becomes of them? Some of them right themselves over time, while others never do.

Some (small number of) people are just ruins, non-functional in society — and perhaps cruel or berzerk much of the time. I gladly affirm that they are still human beings and worthy of humane treatment, but should happen with them? I don't have a good answer. Do you?
posted by argybarg at 1:02 PM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


L. A. County Sheriff Lee Baca has been pretty outspoken about the problems attendant in locking up mentally ill people.
posted by rtha at 1:05 PM on February 21, 2009


It would be cool if we had the biblical concept of the year of the jubilee. If I remember right, this was a general amnesty for all criminals every 7 years. Oh course life expectancy, prison conditions, etc. were different then as well.

Perhaps not for murderers, rapists, pedophiles, etc. But drug crimes and property crime, sure.

I also think they should not allow privatized prisons, not should any state be allowed to make a profit from a prisoner. As a society there needs to be a cost to incarceration, not a benefit. There was a FPP about corrupt judges incarcerating kids kids for a kick back not too long ago.

Mandatory minimums need to go away as well. We appoint judges because they are expected to have the wisdom to look at each case and circumstances.

Or we just need to build "shovel ready" prisons, and expand the program to include debtors. A win win for the economy!
posted by cjorgensen at 1:13 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


I can only really talk about the California prison system, and don't know how applicable this is to other states or the federal prisons, but yes, mental health is as huge a problem as substance abuse (often in the same individuals - they can be different aspects of the same issue, or just co-occurring).

The California prison system is currently under federal court receivership because of class action law suits over the quality of medical care, mental health care, and dental care provided to inmates. The receiver is in the process of building multiple new facilities to provide health care and mental health services, but getting the money for it has been a challenge.

I don't necessarily know what the best solution is for people with mental health and substance abuse problems (although I have a few ideas...) but I can state with some certainty that putting them in prison is not it. It costs over $45K a year to house them there, leaves them worse off than before, and does little to improve public safety.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:16 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Luckily the FBI has started addressing this problem by allowing Madoff and Stanford to not spend time in jail.
posted by ryoshu at 1:35 PM on February 21, 2009


Also, I'm not sure how a 20% drop is "not much of a decline." A 1/5th drop is significant in pretty much any statistic.
posted by ryoshu at 1:39 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here's a recent article (disclosure: written by a friend of mine) about mental health and prison in Ohio.

My job is to try and help people get jobs when they get out of prison. It's tough work (not only because I'm working in the state with the second highest unemployment in the country). Everyone agrees that lack of job support is a leading cause for recidivism, but few, not including most cities and states, are willing to put themselves on the line to fix the situation. It is legal to informally (and often formally) discriminate in hiring against people for having a criminal record, period, regardless of the offense committed.

Even those organizations (the public ones funded by the Workforce Investment Act) charged with helping people "with barriers to employment" find jobs more often than not exclude people with criminal records because they are so difficult to place and retain on jobs that few are able to meet the performance measures required to maintain funding. Which is not even to get into the problem of funding for this issue, which is very difficult to secure for exactly that reason (almost everyone involved in workforce development has unrealistic expectations for job placements for people with criminal records).

Compare how difficult the job search with a criminal record is in general, consider the current state of the economy, and throw in the appealing nature of illegal occupations, and you've got a big explanation for the 60-70% recidivism rates in this country.
posted by lunit at 1:48 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Only 20 percent of inmates in prisons (as opposed to jails) are locked up for drug offenses"

An important point here is that he distinguishes between prison and jail. He is talking about the numbers for people who are in prison. Unless you are convicted of possessing a large quantity of drugs, or you are arrested for a smaller amount but are armed, you will mostly likely serve your time in a jail. People who are imprisoned in jails are not being counted in the statistics he is using. Most people wouldn't make this distinction, but there is a difference.
posted by jefeweiss at 2:45 PM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


"...we should shift money from prisons to police."

I disagree strongly with this idea of his. More money needs to go to education in order to help prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place. More police just means more arrests.
posted by orme at 2:56 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's a Frontline episode on the very issue of mental health and prisons.

What I'm curious about is why so many people were in mental hospitals before. Back in those days, were the hospitals more willing to take in people who couldn't afford it? Were people staying closer to their families so that they'd get support, or at least advocacy to keep them in mental hospitals rather than prison? Did federal support for mental hospitals go down to the point that they couldn't support a good population?
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:53 PM on February 21, 2009


Argh, link to the frontline episode.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:55 PM on February 21, 2009


if we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we're not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals. Viewed through this lens, what seems remarkable is not the current era of mass incarceration but the 1960s and '70s, during which we emptied the hospitals without filling the prisons. Any reform agenda that does not acknowledge the ingrained nature of our punitive impulses will surely fail.

That really irks me. First he dismisses the harm of locking up mental patients with just a shoulder shrug. It's just like we always did. Except that it isn't. Locking up the mentally ill with a bunch of hardened criminals is even more cruel than locking them up in mental hospitals, even the lovely ones of the 1950s. He then attempts to justify high incarceration rates by saying our punitive impulses are ingrained. Pshaw. Racism was ingrained, basically still is, but with dedicated effort things got a lot better for blacks etc. His argument is like saying our desire to not share water fountains between the races is ingrained. Lame.

He is right that only about 20% of offenders are in prison for drug crimes which does fly in the face of some popular media talk. However, another huge chunk (bad data organization, sorry) committed their offense to get drugs and then you have the whole gang violence aspect of the current prison population which is mostly drug driven. If gangs didn't have the drug money they would be far less powerful and violent. More young people would feel safer just saying no to gang membership.
posted by caddis at 3:56 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


In California, it was primarily the state support for mental health facilities and services that declined, more than the federal funding. Our former Governor Reagan did a pretty good job of cutting state funds for mental health. In theory, people would receive services and support in the community, but oddly those resources never materialized.

To reiterate the point I made above: 80-85% of people in California prisons have a substance abuse problem, according to the CDCR. Most of them also have a mental health diagnosis. We're using our prisons as a really expensive We could choose to provide (less expensive, more effective) mental health and substance abuse services in the community, but that would require leadership from politicians who would have to be willing to stand up to the inevitable "soft on crime" charges.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:27 PM on February 21, 2009


The chart on page 5 of this pdf is really startling. Clearly a lot of the population that used to be housed in mental institutions is currently in prison.

The author tries to tackle this question directly in the table on page 1779. A bit surprisingly, given that amazing Figure 1, it is not uniformly the case that the number of prisoners with histories of mental institutionalization went up after the mental institutions were emptied. Of the six states for which he had data, NY, AZ and MA actually saw decreases in the percentage of prisoners with histories of institutionalization. TX, CA and IA saw increases, and because Texas's was so huge (2800% !), the aggregate for all states went up. But for a lot of these states, the prison population went way up, but very little of that increase can be attributed to the transfer of individuals from mental institutions to prisons. It's kind of mysterious.
posted by chortly at 4:32 PM on February 21, 2009


low level drug offenders may not necessarily overcrowd our prison, but many, many violent crimes are committed by people who have been systematically criminalized and institutionalized as part of the war on drugs. to simplify the link is ridiculous.
posted by es_de_bah at 7:26 AM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


gingerbeer: putting them in prison is not it. It costs over $45K a year to house them there, leaves them worse off than before, and does little to improve public safety.

lunit: Compare how difficult the job search with a criminal record is in general, consider the current state of the economy, and throw in the appealing nature of illegal occupations, and you've got a big explanation for the 60-70% recidivism rates in this country.

This is one of those times that I dearly wish government officials with the power to change things read Metafilter. Because it seems that, instead of spending that money to keep them locked up, they just gave them half of that a year, for a couple of years, and they'd immediately greatly reduce recidivism rates and thus prison population, AND save a ton of money at the same time.

Yeah yeah I know, don't reward 'em, but man. Most people want to eventually earn more than 22.5K a year, right?
posted by JHarris at 12:19 PM on February 22, 2009


Another distortion in the article is the weaselly "up to 30%" of the crime drop he attributes to increased incarceration. That's, could be 0%, could be 30%-- most of the numbers I've seen are more like 20%.

And I'm dubious about his claim about the low numbers of people in prison due to parole or probation violations-- I haven't checked it, but as far as I recall, the number was much higher than he says it is.
posted by Maias at 11:56 AM on February 23, 2009



re: "Myth #2" - since when is 20% an insignificant percentage?

- in 1980, estimated drug arrests totalled 471,200.
- ten years later, in 1990 the total is now at 1,008,300
- ten years again in 2000 and it is now 1,375,600
(source)

and we're supposed to believe that people being arrested & imprisoned for drug offenses aren't a significant factor in prison growth?

what am i missing here?
posted by jammy at 1:03 PM on February 23, 2009


More police just means more arrests.

This isn't true. To just use an obvious example, a cop sitting on the side of the highway makes a lot of people slow down, not just the ones he gives tickets to.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:31 PM on February 23, 2009


To just use an obvious example, a cop sitting on the side of the highway makes a lot of people slow down, not just the ones he gives tickets to.

It's true, more cops hanging around everywhere DOES fuck with more people's day-to-day operation and create giant clumps of aggravation.
posted by FatherDagon at 3:05 PM on February 23, 2009


more problems with "Myth #2" -

I just realized, looking at the pdf cited a bit more closely, that the 20% figure that he is using is for state prisons only, even though his argument is focussed on the "prison boom" (i.e., the explosive growth of both state & federal prison populations combined). The federal numbers are more than a little bit different. For example:

In 2000, an estimated 57% of Federal inmates and 21% of State inmates were serving a sentence for a drug offense

This article, at least on this point, does not provide an accurate analysis. Not even close. Why does this kind of poorly researched crap get published?

Also, please see:
32. According to the US Justice Department, in federal prisons, "While the number of offenders in each major offense category increased [from 1995 to 2003], the number incarcerated for a drug offense accounted for the largest percentage of the total growth (49%), followed by public-order offenders (38%).

33. According to the US Justice Department, between 1990 and 2000 "Overall, the percentage of violent Federal inmates declined from 17% to 10%. While the number of offenders in each major offense category increased, the number incarcerated for a drug offense accounted for the largest percentage of the total growth (59%), followed by public-order offenders (32%).
(source)
posted by jammy at 3:39 PM on February 23, 2009


To be fair, there are many, many times more state than federal prisoners-- but yeah, the rest of it shows how selective the use of data was.
posted by Maias at 3:08 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


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