Violent Crime and Imprisonment

Most people in state prison are there for a violent offense

Dana Goldstein at the Marshall Project has created a useful interactive graph showing who is in prison and how we might build further on the de-incarceration trend which started five years ago. Goldstein also echoes a point that Mark Kleiman and I have made here many times: It’s a myth that prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders.

The chart below presents Bureau of Justice Statistics data on state prisons, which is where almost 90% of U.S. prisoners reside. Violent crime has consistently been the leading cause of imprisonment, and most state prison inmates are serving time for a violent offense. Importantly, the data reflect current controlling offense only and thus understate the proportion of prisoners who engage in violence: Many inmates currently serving time for a non-violent offense have prior convictions for violent crimes.

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These data make de-incarceration more complex in at least two ways , which is perhaps why so many people don’t want to believe them.

First, the noble ongoing efforts to reduce the size of the prison population should take substantial care to protect public safety as violent offenders are released. Mass dumping of violent offenders into communities with no monitoring and no services would be dangerous for them, for their families, and for their neighbors. Further, if it leads to released prisoners committing high-profile acts of violence, it could also choke off political support for continued de-incarceration.

Second, even assuming the best of all policy worlds in which reducing incarceration continues to be a priority, the U.S. is probably too violent of a society to ever shrink its prison population to a Western European level. The proportion of the U.S. population that is serving time for violent crimes is larger than the proportion of the Western European population that is serving time for all offenses combined.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “Violent Crime and Imprisonment”

  1. The prisons need not be “full of non-violent drug offenders” for it to be a really dumb policy to threaten imprisonment. This is especially so in a system where jury trials are so rare and where so much evidence is based on that of offenders looking to escape prison themselves. That’s a system ripe for abuse and rotten because so much of what passes for process is only window-dressing.

    That is even assuming the threat of imprisonment, let alone the fact of it, does anything at all to stem the availability of drugs, presuming that is the goal instead of simply satisfying the atavistic urges of our legislators. We all know the answer to that.

    American government is in policy-lust with prison because it is so stunted for new ideas and because it prefers the delusion of enforcing “personal responsibility” in the face of government inaction to stem the numerous factors in American society that make crime an attractive alternative to, say, those millions of low-paying service sector jobs that the president just this week noted might still be a problem. Yes, prison populations have shown some signs of falling a bit from their peak, but only because the public’s patience for new construction has been eclipsed by the fact such policies have revealed themselves as the wrong tool for the wrong job in a time of general austerity. Before that, they were the only government jobs program that we had left, sad to say.

    1. I have argued for a quarter century that no one should go to prison simply for consuming a drug (not just marijuana, any drug), and have worked with states to move drug-addicted people out of prison, indeed am doing so now with 3 very different states.

      But I still want the truth to be told about public policy and information to be accurate. I talk to legislatures and governor’s offices who ask me how big the drug offender population is because they have heard on the news or read on the Internet that it’s almost everyone in their prison system. I tell them the truth, that it isn’t.

  2. I do note that the percentage of drug prisoners tripled during the Len Bias years and hasn’t gone down too much since. I also note that this graph is one of stock, not flow. The percentage of people admitted to prison for drug offenses could be constantly increasing, if folk get incarcerated for increasingly long times for violent crimes and less so for drug offenses.

    I’m also puzzled by “public order.” If I understand the category, these crimes shouldn’t lead to long sentences. This seems to imply that the flow of public order prisoners (prostitutes?) is pretty high. And that seems odd.

    1. @Ebenezer: Stock and flow is a very important issue in understanding prisons, and I am glad you raised it. The average length of sentence for drug, property and public order crimes are all lower than they were 20 years ago, but this is not true for violent sentences. The latter group thus accounts for more of the stock.

      Public order I suspect, but do not know, includes many people with alcohol problems - chronic drunk and disorderly, maybe druink drivers who didn’t kill anyone. It’s hard to imagine a state would put many streetwalkers into prison (jail, yes) but I don’t know.

      1. Gun offenses (other than actual shootings) are typically classified as “public order.”

  3. Claiming the prisons are predominantly full of non-violent drug offenders clearly has no factual basis, but per that very chart above, don’t we see several hundred thousand non-violent drug offenders? A bit less than 20% of the bit more than 1.5 million inmates. Even if a third of those have previous violent convictions, that still sounds like 200K too many incarcerations.

    1. @Blake: At the end of the chart, there were about 240,000 people in state prison whose currently controlling offense was for drugs. Let’s say your one third is correct, that gives us 160k. Some would say none of those should be in prison; my own view both from consuming CJ research and from being in many prisons is that some should and some should not. Jon Caulkins and I have suggested cutting sentence lengths for low-end functionaries in the drug trade (lookouts, street dealers). I also think we can move out all the addicts who committed a series of low-end crimes and plead to the drug charge — we have good evidence that being in a therapeutic community is better for them, for their families and for society. On the front end, we want to avoid putting in prison anyone who can do well in HOPE probation or a drug court.

      But even if you did all that, there would be some people (50,000 maybe?) in prison on drug charges for long stretches who had never had a violent conviction, e.g., someone who ran a huge cocaine ring but never actually shot/beat/kidnapped anyone in the course of the business. That doesn’t bother me.

      1. Sounds like we’re on exactly the same page then. I’ll certainly agree there’s another segment, not directly violent, but problematic for other reasons that merit a cell. The remainder, whether it is 200K or 100K, is lousy for the full trio of reasons: poor or negative rehabilitation results, expensive to maintain, and massively biased towards those most disadvantaged in society to start with.

  4. Keith, this is a statistic for state prisoners only. It does not include those in jails (i.e. with a sentence of one year or less) nor those in federal custody. Naturally, this skews the data considerably: about 1/3 of the incarcerated population is held in jails, and the composition of federal prisoners is very different, with more than half of those convicted of drug and immigration offenses. While federal prisons hold only about 220k inmates, combined with the numbers of jail inmates, this cannot be ignored.

    As a consequence, I do not think that your conclusions necessarily hold up, or at least not to such a degree.

    1. That is correct Katja, these are state prison data, hence the title of the post.

    2. Yes, but on any given date, there are “only” some 700,000 in custody in local jails, give or take.

  5. What’s the definition of violent crime here? Anything from simple assault on up? I’d be interested to see whether the mix has changed, what with decreasing tolerance for even relatively minor violent acts by some people.

    I’d also bet on the stock vs flow argument. Even a relatively small increase in the length of sentences for violent crimes could lead to a significant increase in the relative numbers imprisoned.

  6. Regarding the stock vs. flow question: The BJS publication “Prisoners in 2011” lists admission rates for California prisons in 2011 as one data point (see table 4 for a breakdown by offense type). Noteworthy is the big shift in Q4 2011 as a result of California being required to reduce its prison population.

  7. I was going toask the same question, adding the numbers in prison for robbery or theft to get their fix of nicotine or alcohol.

      1. Let’s split this three ways.

        1. Crime in the course of business: illegal drugs (marijuana, cocaine, heroin, meth, &c) - lots; legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) - negligible.
        2. Crime to obtain drug of choice: cocaine and heroin - lots; marijuana - very little (it’s too cheap); legal drugs - negligible for adults (supplying minors is significant).
        3. Crime under the influence of drug of choice: alcohol - lots; tobacco - nil; illegal drugs - a little (eg driving under the influence of marijuana).

        I suppose that decriminalisation of a currently illegal drug can be expected to reduce 1 and 2, though for pot 2 is already negligible. For 3, it depends on the psychological effects of the particular drug. Does marijuana really reduce inhibitions against violence the way alcohol does? Cocaine? I suppose nobody commits a a crime while on a heroin high.

        1. The ADAM study shows that the proportion of arrestees testing positive for cocaine ranged from 12-33% across cities. The numbers are a bit lower for heroin (though in the UK, the pattern would be reversed).

          The stereotype of heroin users is that they are not violent, but they can be. The drug is soporofic, but as it is metabolised and the person begins to crave it again, they become agitated and easily infuriated.

        2. Thanks for the data, Keith. The arrestees testing positive for cocaine could be 2 (to obtain more of the drug, typically by theft or robbery) or 3 (under the influence, eg for public disorder or common assault), or both. Any ideas?
          The point is moot for current policy arguments, which are about marijuana not harder drugs.

  8. Personally I want to greatly increase the fraction of so-called nonviolent offenders in prison, using as our guide Gandhi’s insightful observation that poverty is the greatest violence. This, the banksters and other fraud artists and debt collectors who abuse the poor, the slumlords, the rent-to-own lenders, payday loan lenders, and most especially a whole lot of mortgage servicers … The ones before whom Eric Holder has fallen to his knees and serviced lavishly all these years.

    The best thing about jailing and imprisoning these mofos is that you need very little time to get full benefit — you send the average thug life guy up for five years and you’ve barely whetted a DA’s appetite. Send up a vice president for five years and subject him to the kinds of restitution orders that the poor routinely get, now that will get their attention.

    I’m all for sanctioning violent offenders; but I know that we’d have fewer of them if the laws weren’t all about ensuring that those whose illgotten gains were accomplished by fountain pen rather than MAC-10 never had to so much as visit a prison.

    1. “[I] want to greatly increase the fraction of so-called nonviolent offenders in prison…the banksters and other fraud artists and debt collectors who abuse the poor, the slumlords, the rent-to-own lenders, payday loan lenders, …”

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  9. Keith,
    While it’s true that non-violent offenders are occupying a smaller SHARE of the state prison population, your focus on share doesn’t address the issue that the state prison population doubled between 1990 and 2010. So while the share of prison inmates admitted for drug and property offenses may have fallen from ~45% to ~38%, their numbers grew massively (drug inmates went from ~140k to ~280k). And this occurred while the U.S. resident population grew from ~248m to ~308m. Taken in that context, your statement in sentence 3 (“An even more widely embraced myth is that states have been increasingly incarcerating non-violent offenders.”) is not a myth. The growth in drug and property inmates far outpaced the growth in resident population.

    1. Jake — Well spotted! That sentence is indeed wrong as written, it should have referred to proportions and not numbers. Thank you for your sharp eyes. I have amended the post accordingly.

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