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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Setting the Stage: The Explosion in Prison Populations

The graph below never ceases to amaze, no matter how many times I look at it. 


The explosion starting in the mid-1970s was unprecedented in American history or world experience. And it came out of the blue. In one of the worst-timed articles in criminology, Alfred Blumstein, one of the nation’s most prominent criminologists, wrote in 1979 that:

The existence of such a stable imprisonment rate suggests that, as a nation’s prison population begins to fluctuate,  pressure is generated to restore the prison population to that stable rate.

Not exactly. Today, the US is home to about 5% of the world’s prisoners population, but nearly 25% of its prisoners. Our prison-and-jail incarceration rate* of 756 (in 2011) is the highest in the world. The countries filling out the top ten (in descending order) are Russia, Cuba, Belarus, Belize, Georgia (the country—the state has a higher rate), Kazakhstan, Suriname, South Africa, Botswana, Israel, Ukraine, and Chile; Russia’s rate of 629** putting it in the number 2 slot. If we are known by the company we keep, we should be worried. European countries outside of the former Warsaw Bloc states all have incarceration rates in the 100s, as does China (and Saudi Arabia).

Like all zombie ideas, the claim linking the War on Drugs to this explosion has some facial plausibility. The surge in incarceration and the War on Drugs started around the same time (if you use the Reagan Administration, not the Nixon one, as the starting point for the War on Drugs). And between 1980 and 2009, the number of prisoners incarcerated on drug offenses rose by approximately 1,175%! 

But like with all zombies, cracks in the argument become quickly apparent. Take the 1,175% number. In 1980, there were 19,000 drug inmates in state prison, a number which soared to 242,200 in 2009. And yes, that means there are more people in prison today for drug crimes than were in prison in 1972 for all crimes (around 200,000).

But in 2009, there were over 1.36 million people in state prison. And 242,200 is only 17.7% of 1.36M. So a lot of non-drug offenders were added to prison during those years, too—a lot more, in fact, than drug offenders.

Adding in the federal system—which is much more heavily focused on drug offenders, who comprise nearly 50% of its inmates—does not change the analysis much. Including the federal numbers, 337,405 prisoners out of 1.52 million, or 22.2% of all prisoners, were serving time for drug offenses.

Consider the following thought experiment. What would US prison populations in 2009 look like if in 1980 we released all 23,900 prisoners serving time for drug offenses (the 19,000 state prisoners plus 4,900 federal drug inmates) and proceeded to admit no prisoners for drug crimes in the subsequent years? Instead of rising 3.8-fold, it would have risen 3-fold. A difference, but not an enormous one. (I’ll show my work for these numbers shortly in a future post.)

In other words, we would have had our unprecedentedly vertiginous prison population even without the increase in drug incarcerations. Liberate all drug offenders from our prisons and jails, and our global rank would, at best, drop all the way to... number 2. Maybe number 3. Slightly less punitive than Russia, maybe Cuba.

So a simple look at just a handful of easy-to-find numbers—the total number of prisoners, the total number of drug offenders—and the blame-the-war-on-drugs claim already starts to fall apart. There simply are not enough drug offenders in prison for them to be doing much heavy lifting.


* My focus here is on prisons alone, since jail populations are less well measured and are more substantively heterogeneous: prisons are for convicted felons sentenced to at least a year or more of incarceration, while jails hold offenders (generally misdemeanants) serving sentences of less than a year and those being held awaiting trial. Jails also have much higher turnover rates (such as people spending a few days before making bail), making it hard to understand what exactly a one-time population count actually tells us. The international statistics, however, only report the aggregate prison-and-jail rates, likely because not every country divides its system the way the US does.

** Thus the difference between our incarceration rate and Russia's is equal to or greater than the total incarceration rate of most Western European countries (~ 100 per 100,000).


Posted by John Pfaff on April 24, 2013 at 09:41 AM | Permalink


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You undermine your point -- which I think is a good one -- by adding the "under jurisdiction" population (which is about 2x the in custody population in a chart that supposedly quantifies those incacerated. The data are sufficently disturbing without gilding the lily

Posted by: jt | Apr 24, 2013 9:49:37 AM

@JT: I'm not sure I follow. "Under Jurisdiction" and "In Custody" don't differ by that much. Between 1977 and 1986, the government gathered prison counts under both definitions, and the difference between them is only about 8% each year. So there is a slight discontinuous jump when shifting over in 1977, but not by much.

The BJS doesn't report "In custody" anymore, and "under jurisdiction" doesn't go back past 1977, so it is impossible to construct a long historical series without using both, and the 8% jump at the transition doesn't affect the basic story at all.

Posted by: John Pfaff | Apr 24, 2013 10:02:11 AM

My first thought looking at that graph was: what caused the spike around 1940? It seems to occur around the same time as WWII but I can't think of any obvious reason why the war should increase incarceration rates.

Posted by: Stuart | Apr 24, 2013 10:52:29 AM

@Stuart: I don't know for sure, but another way to look at it isn't as a spike in 1939/1940, but as a decline from a general upward trend, with the decline starting around 1940. That fits the WWII story perfectly: crime and incarceration should be a lot lower when you remove those most likely to commit crimes--young men--and send them overseas to fight wars.

Posted by: John Pfaff | Apr 24, 2013 10:56:32 AM

I'm interested in your take on Bernard Harcourt's theory that the shift was from mental hospitals to prisons:

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 24, 2013 12:15:28 PM

"Today, the US is home to about 5% of the world’s prisoners, but nearly 25% of its prisoners." should be "about 5% of the world's population, but ...".

Posted by: brad | Apr 24, 2013 12:45:29 PM

John, how are cases involving both drugs and other offenses treated for these classification purposes? Also, how many people currently in prison (with non-drug underlying offenses)are there because of probation or parole violations that DO involve drugs?

Posted by: Dan Filler | Apr 24, 2013 4:00:51 PM

@Dan: I had a paragraph about that, but dropped it. The hierarchy is violent --> property --> drug --> other. Which to suggests that official statistics likely overstate the role of the War on Drugs even further. I can see the police finding drugs in the process of making an arrest for a non-drug offense, but it seems less likely that they will "find" an assault while making a drug arrest, with the possible exception of firearm charges (where you can see the police stumbling across a gun while making a drug arrest).

So, building on Dan M's point, if some drug convictions are easy plea deals of, say, violent/drug offenders, then what looks like a drug incarceration is "really" a violent incarceration. It strikes me as less likely that we'll see pleas in the other direction: take the violent plea in exchange for dropping the drug charge. But that's my untested gut intuition, and confirmation bias could be playing a role (my assumption perfectly fits my prior hypothesis). It's an interesting question to ask, and there may be one or two datasets that can shed some light on that.

Probation and parole is tougher, since it is so hard to know what is going there. Is the drug violation a pretextual one--the DA could violate for a more serious violation or for a new offense altogether, but drugs are easier? I'm not sure there is data out there that would allow us to see how many "pure" drug violations occur. But this is less of a problem for my thesis than, perhaps, the classification issue, since I'll argue later that parole violations in general, whatever their reasons, are likely not driving growth in most (i.e., non-Californian) states.

Posted by: John Pfaff | Apr 24, 2013 4:48:38 PM

A huge part of the property offense category, however, is drug-related, or Prohibition related. Pot, which should cost pennies a gram (it's just a plant), instead can cost $100 for a quarter-ounce, or more. Potheads want their drug; they can't afford it; so they steal stuff to pay for it. They get caught, they go to jail. It isn't drug-related, since they weren't caught dealing, but if they could have had a pot bush in their backyard they would have, and then they wouldn't have boosted that stereo, or what have you. Other drugs are worse; their prices aren't so inflated, maybe, but the drugs themselves tend to encourage, er, informal property acquisition tendencies. How much of the population is this group? I don't know, but it's significantly nonzero.

Posted by: Robert | Apr 25, 2013 10:27:54 AM

The problem with your thesis is that it is the initial contact with the criminal justice system that often leads to a life of crime. Approximately 50% of all drug arrests are of people under 21. Most of these arrests are for simple possession of marijuana. Once found guilty a young person can legally be discriminated against in both housing and employment for the rest of their life. With no hope of ever getting a decent job, either a life of selling drugs or petty theft is the life most of these youths caught with marijuana find themselves trapped in. A single arrest for marijuana may over the course of that person’s life, lead to a dozen or more arrests that never should have happened. Certainly the using of jails as mental health facilities with little to no mental health care professionals has exacerbated the problem, but it is unlikely the cause. One only needs to look at the ethnic makeup of any person system to see that.

Jails and prisons are places where people learn the trade of taking from other people to survive. They are good for little else. Society puts these young people that are simply possessing or consuming a plant in these institutions and saddle them with criminal records so they are not allowed to be productive members of society and then wonders why we have a crime problem. The answer is we manufacture criminals where none previously existed.

Posted by: Tom Butler | Apr 27, 2013 11:38:05 AM

In support of Tom Butler's argument: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/16/opinion/sunday/racially-biased-arrests-for-pot.html?src=rechp

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Jun 18, 2013 10:13:44 AM

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