On mass incarceration, BS from B.S.

Political candidates make statements that do not closely track the facts. That’s a given. Sometimes it’s just fluff and spin: not creditable, but not a mortal sin, either.

Sometimes, however, a candidate makes a statement suggesting that the candidate is either being deliberately deceptive on a matter of importance or simply has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Consider, for example, this from Bernie Sanders:

… at the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country.

That’s a very specific promise, with a timeline attached. And it is a promise that no President has the power to fulfill.

If we elide the distinction between prisons (holding people convicted of serious crimes) and jails (holding people convicted of minor crimes and people awaiting trial), it is true and important that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration. That’s a disgrace. (I seem to recall having written a book on the topic.)

We should do something about that, and there are things to do about it. A President can do some of them.

But of the 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, fewer than 10% are Federal prisoners. The rest are in state prisons and local jails. If the President were to release all of the Federal prisoners, we would still, as a country, have more prisoners than any other country. So Sen. Sanders was very specifically making a promise he has no way of keeping. Either he knows that or he does not.

And his promise to accomplish it with “education and jobs” utterly misunderstands the short-term relationships between schooling and employment on the one hand and crime and incarceration on the other.

So it sounds as if Sen. Sanders, after several decades in public office, is either utterly unserious or utterly clueless about the crime issue. Again, that’s excusable. But since he also seems to know very little about foreign policy, and much of what he thinks he knows about health care is just plain wrong, someone might want to start asking what it is he does know about, other than how to get a crowd riled up by denouncing the banksters.

Those of us supporting Hillary Clinton this year are sometimes accused of wanting to settle for political small-ball rather than sweeping change. But no matter how good Sen. Sanders’s intentions may be, he’s not going to be able to change very much for the better unless he’s willing to learn something about the way the world, and the political system, actually operate.

Learning requires both humility - the knowledge of what one does not now know - and curiosity. Sen. Sanders’s passionate conviction that he already knows the truth, and that anyone who disagrees with him must be in the pay of special interests, does not suggest that he numbers either humility or curiosity among his many virtues.




Homelessness After Prison or Jail: Housing First

Criminal justice reform offers ideas to housing policy; perhaps housing can return the favor.

Lowry’s posting suggested using the criminal justice notion of swift, certain and fair punishment to minimize evictions from public housing.   What about using the homelessness-prevention notion of “Housing First” in the criminal justice context?

It’s been clear for years that requiring homeless people to subdue their mental illness or kick their drug habits or otherwise become model citizens before being sheltered failed utterly to reduce their misbehavior but succeeded splendidly in increasing the duration of their exposure to the elements.  What a surprise: without a roof under which to sleep or a safe place to store one’s stuff, other life changes become damn near impossible.

The same logic should apply to any program of reentry from prison or jail: before discharging a prisoner, corrections officials should make sure that s/he has a place to live, and provide one (albeit minimal) if not.  In other words, treat people who are homeless because they’ve been locked up the same as people who are homeless for any other reason.  This means recognizing that, without a stable place to live, staying out of trouble with the law becomes one of those damn near impossible life changes.  And that’s without even considering the people incarcerated precisely because they’re homeless—because “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

It’s costly to provide housing.  But just as scholars and practitioners finally figured out that it was cheaper to house people than to keep shuttling them between the streets and the emergency rooms, I suspect we’ll soon find that it’s cheaper to house those who’ve made it out of the criminal justice system than it is to keep sending them back in.

The Incarceration Tipping Point

The three-decade-plus growth of incarceration in the U.S. at one point seemed an unstoppable public policy juggernaut, insensitive to political and economic changes. Until it wasn’t: The number of people in prison finally began dropping under President Obama and appears likely to continue doing so.

One key determinant of the size of the prison population is the number of admissions each year. I have presented a longer series of data on the prison admission rate before; here I will just focus on the past decade of data to better highlight something unusual about recent history. In interpreting the data, note that the government defines admissions as sentences exceeding one year, so every admission represents a unique individual.

Incarceration Tipping Point

The shape of the curve is singular. Initially the rate continues its decades-long ascent. But in 2006 it hits an invisible ceiling and begins plummeting with increasing speed. This is an unusual finding in public policy analysis. Particularly at the national level, it usually takes awhile for major policy changes to be consolidated. But in this case, we have experienced an unambiguous U-turn. Further, while the 2007 and 2008 drops in the rate of prison admission are roughly equal in size, from that point forward the drop each year exceeds that of the prior year. The drop in 2012 was about double that of 2010, four times that of 2009 and six times that of 2008.

I could tell a story about the causes of this policy turnabout and I am sure many other people could also (get the lead out, Kevin…). But all I want to do here is highlight the striking nature of the change: Outside of tulip bulb investing and the like, you rarely see national policy go so vigorously in one direction and then abruptly travel with accelerating speed in the opposite direction.

p.s. Some people have cited my prior posts on the prison admission rate change as “Humphreys’ research”, so let me clarify that I do not deserve credit for doing anything groundbreaking here. I am simply taking two numbers produced annually by your federal government (the number of prison admissions and the size of the general population) and dividing one by the other. In the chart above I multiplied the result by 100,000 as this is the standard incarceration rate used by criminologists.

Is Continued De-Incarceration Guaranteed?

After rising inexorably for more than three decades, the U.S. prison population has declined three years in a row. Few people see this as anything other than an extremely positive development. But will it last? Some prison policy watchers are more optimistic than others.

Mike Konczal is one of many smart people who has raised the worry that as The Great Recession disappears into the rear-view mirror, states will return to fiscal health and consequently lose interest in slashing prison budgets.

I don’t share Konczal’s anxiety, for two reasons. First, because the general pattern in U.S. history is for prison populations to grow rather than shrink during economic downturns, I am not convinced that The Great Recession was very important to the reversal of the 30+ year mass incarceration trend. Second, states like South Dakota whose public finances are already in rude health are nonetheless taking major steps to reduce incarceration.

A different case for pessimism, among some liberals at least, is that now that some prisons are privatized, the powerhouse lobbyists of that industry will prevent further de-incarceration. Some people on the political right are too reflexively fearful of government and too trusting of the private sector. Prison policy is a case where the opposite set of biases afflicts some analysts on the left. Over 90% of U.S. inmates are in public prisons. The political power of public sector unions on incarceration-related issues thus dwarfs that of the small private sector. If the private prison operators and public sector prison employees unions allied in the cause of preventing de-incarceration, it could be a significant political problem, but that’s not very likely because they hate each others’ guts.

Turning to the case for optimism, Charles Lane persuasively cites the impact of our still-falling crime rate:

Less crime leads to declining incarceration in two ways. First, and most obvious, there are fewer law-breakers to lock up. Second, safer streets reduce the public’s demand for tough “law and order” policies like the stiff mandatory minimum sentences that helped drive the U.S. rate of incarceration up in the 80s and 90s.

Kevin Drum is even more upbeat based on his analysis of lead exposure research. He argues that the generation that grew up in the leaded gasoline era was uniquely violent. As they age out and are replaced by non-exposed generations, Kevin expects crime and incarceration rates to continue their fall.

You don’t have to accept the lead explanation to make an equally positive projection about the future. Prisoners tend to have long criminal histories that began when they were teenagers. As a result, the current size of the prison population reflects the crime rate of a decade or two ago better than it does that of the present moment. Ten years from now, the prison population will better reflect the low crime rate we have been enjoying in recent years, which translates into many fewer people serving hard time.

Recessions Do Not Reduce The Prison Population

Recessions do not cause the prison population to fall

Every time the economy stalls, journalists start predicting that crime will soar as a result, even though the historical record completely disconfirms such an equation (as Mark Kleiman has pointed out repeatedly). A trendy extension of this false meme, which gets an airing in Mike Konczal’s balanced Washington Post piece, is that hard economic times caused the recent drop in the prison population.

No, they didn’t. Forgive me please for self-quoting:

The number of people incarcerated went up every single year from the mid 1970s until 2009. Over that more than 30 year period, there have been economic booms and contractions, changes in the relative strength of the major political parties, alterations in the demographic makeup of the US general population, the waxing and waning of drug epidemics, and countless other changes in American life.

The prison population started rising during the mid-1970s oil shock and kept right on rising during the recessions of 1980, 1981-1982, 1990-1991 and 2001. If we want to explain a historic reversal of a multi-decade trend, we cannot logically do it by pointing to a factor that occurred repeatedly — a lousy economy — while that trend was underway.

Look instead for more novel factors to explain why the incarceration rate is finally falling, such as the lowest crime rates we have had in generations, lower fear of crime than in generations, the emergence of effective alternatives to incarceration, and/or, if Kevin Drum is right, the dramatic reduction in lead in the environment.

UPDATE: In response to me, Mike argues that the Great Recession was different than prior recessions in being more severe, and so it did indeed reduce the prison population. The problem with this riposte is that if it is only severe economic shocks that shrink prison populations, then there should have been a huge decrease in incarceration during The Great Depression. But that is precisely the reverse of what actually happened.

SECOND UPDATE: Kevin Drum agrees that the case is not made for recessions, but dings me for saying “novel factors” when of course falling crime is a long-invoked, rational explanation. Fair comment by Kevin and bad writing by me. I mean novel not in the sense that no one had invoked it as an explanation before, but in the sense of something not present as a policy force before. We are in the midst of a multi-decade crime drop — that is novel and could explain why we are seeing something else change for the first time in a long time.

The Strangely Underreported Decline in the Incarceration Rate

I hereby submit my nomination for the most underreported public policy story of the past year: The continuing decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars or on probation/parole. Both the change itself and low level of attention it has garnered are worthy of reflection.

At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the incarceration rate in the United States had been rising every single year since the mid 1970s. The relentless growth in the proportion of Americans behind bars had persisted through good economic times and bad, Republican and Democratic Presidents, and countless changes in state and local politics around the country.

If a public policy trend with that much momentum had even slowed significantly, it would have been merited attention, but something far more remarkable occurred: The incarceration rate and the number of people under correctional supervision (i.e., including people on probation/parole) declined for three years in a row. At the end of 2011, the proportion of people under correctional supervision returned to a level not seen since the end of the Clinton Administration.

You’d think this would be big news, but it’s gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, if you google on news articles and op-eds about incarceration that have appeared during the Obama Administration, you will find precious few that mention or even seem aware of the change. John Tierney dropped some breadcrumbs in his recent NYT article, which I hope means he will delve into the decline in incarceration as his series of articles on criminal justice progresses. There’s a great deal a good journalist could illuminate for the public, for example which policies and politics are producing the change and how it plays out on the ground.

Why hasn’t the shrinkage of the correctional population received more attention already? Three forces are likely at play. Continue reading “The Strangely Underreported Decline in the Incarceration Rate”