Thursday, August 13, 2009

Incarceration Nation

At Criminal Justice, Matt Kelley posts a chart from the Pew Center's report "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008" (pdf) showing state spending on prisons as a percentage of their overall budgets. Here's the data mappified:

spending on prisons by state map

(No, Michigan, I don't know why PEW doesn't love you.) Kelley has the original chart, which also shows percentage point changes (which only went down for eight states) from 1987-2007. Says Kelley: "These numbers are hideous. Oregon spends more than 10% of its general fund on corrections. Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware spend more on corrections than on higher education."

The Pew report also includes this chart, which shows just what an outlier the US is among western nations in terms of prison populations:

incarceration rates international comparison chart

Let's hear it for American exceptionalism!


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Sorry if my heart bleeds all over, but I'm not convinced that high spending for corrections is necessarily bad. Now, states who spend more on that than on education probably aren't quite right, but higher spending COULD mean that a state is putting its inmates in decent facilities and giving them a chance to make something of themselves, instead of (at the other extreme) putting them in a 150-year-old building and essentially letting them rot and/or kill each other. Now, my argument falls apart if higher-spending-per-inmate (that'd be a nice map, actually) states fail to curb recidivism, so grains of salt are in order. But just saying. (And as for the percentage/number of inmates we have, I think it's obscene to imprison so many people for so many crimes for so long.)

Anonymous said...

It's the crimes they are being imprisoned for (another good map idea)that should be considered.

Gus Snarp said...

Greg - you make an interesting point, look at say, Vermont vs. Alabama. Does Alabama really lock up less of its population than Vermont? Is Vermont overrun with crime? Or do they just treat inmates better. There is no doubt that the percentage of our population in prison is far too high, and that we could probably amend our sentencing to correct some of that without affecting public safety, and that spending probably shouldn't be that high, but I do believe that prisons shouldn't just be warehouses for human beings.

Anonymous said...

It really shows the true face of the USA, the wild west isn´t over yet... By enough guns, put lots of people in jail (for whatever reason) and call it the home of the free and the brave...

Andrew said...

Having been a victim of crime a number of times during the crime-wave of 1975-2000, and watched the perpatrators be ignored or given a slap on the wrist, I am thrilled that so many of these people are now dead (lets hear it for 25,000 murders a year, plus tens of thousands of drug overdoses), or behind bars.

This country is immensely safer than 20 years ago, and the prison population is a big reason for it. If you are too young to remember this time clearly, let me just say you are lucky.

Here's my personal scroll of victimhood:
1974 - trespassing
1975 - breaking and entering (attempted entry through kitchen window)
1980 - home robbery (broke through unbarred stained glass window)
1982 - petite larceny (bike stolen off front porch)
1983 - home robbery (broke through unbarred living room window)
1987 - home robbery (broke through laundry room window)
1988 - attemped theft (auto)
1989 - simple assault
1991 - hit and run (sideswipe followed by an exchange of false information by perpatrator)
1992 - home robbery (broke through small rear door window using a child to enter and open, then chisled out locks of 1" thick solid wood laundry room door to gain entry)
1992 - mugging and carjacking at gunpoint (2 armed youths)
1993 - mugging (4 high school football linemen vs. me)
1994 - grand theft auto (auto recovered by chance a few weeks later when seen parked in neighborhood)
1994 - breaking and entering (perp fled upon detection)
1995 - confidence scheme (bilked out of money by man posing as a Church deacon)
1996 - petite larceny (bike theft)
1996 - hit and run (fender bender at intersection)
1997 - extortion ("professional" movers held furniture and goods hostage until paid double quoted price)
1999 - grand larceny (mountain bike, golf clubs, rollerblades stolen from in-law's barn)
2000 - grand larceny (auto stereo/CD player)

Diego said...

I suppose most of those jailed are not rapists and murderers, but drug-traffickers (or drug users) and thieves.

It is appaling to read Andrew's scroll of victimhood. I think low social spending and the US gun culture have much to do with it.

I live in a relatively unsafe European city (Madrid). I have never, ever seen a gun (but for police ones). No relative of mine (and I have around 50 relatives in the area) has ever been "mugged"; robbery and thief exists, but it is almost always in a non-violent, inattentiveness-looking way.

Despite this, I am envious of a city like Munich (population: 1.4m) where only 3 people are killed every year. Wonderful, isn't it?

Anyway, Spanish prison population has doubled in a decade, due to drug-trafficking. In the same decade, the drug-legalizing Netherlands' prisons have been voided, and the Netherlands is renting its jails to its neighbours.

So zero-tolerance drug policies explain much of the large jailed population; inequality, low social spending and gun culture explain much of US huge violence and crime stats. Just my two cents.

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Gus Snarp said...

Andrew - Where on earth do you live? You are a statistical anomaly like no other, even allowing that previous victimization is a good statistical predictor of future victimization.

Andrew said...

Gus Snarp:

Where did I live?

The events narrated took place in the University City neighborhood of Philadelphia (1974 to 1975), the West Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia (1980 to 1992 plus the auto theft in 1994), the Oakland/Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh (1993 to 1996), uptown Manhattan (1997 to 2000), and a rural area outside of Pittsburgh (theft of 1999).

These were all events in middle to upper middle class urban neighborhoods except the theft at the in-laws. I personally attribute most of the events to the drug trade, as Diego mentioned. I did not list additional crimes I merely witnessed neighbors suffering (more muggings, purse-snatchings, break-ins, car thefts, assaults, etc.), or seperate crimes suffered by my brother at the same time (more muggings), or seperate crimes suffered by my father (multiple smash and grabs from the car), or crimes on neighbors I merely helped thwart by running down the perps and tackling them (more purse-snatchings, an attempted bike theft).

This is a real list of what happened - I'm not inventing any of it. Cross my heart and hope to die!

And people wonder why there was white flight to the suburbs and such a passion for law and order from the Reagan Democrat/Archie Bunker demographic!

Chachy said...

Andrew - Given your libertarian leanings and your attribution of those crimes of which you were a victim to the drug trade, do I take it that you'd be in favor of drug de-criminalization?

Also: Your attitude is that it's good that all these criminals are locked up - it shows the US is doing what it needs to do to address the problem of crime. But as you can see from the chart in this post, all other wealthy Western countries have far lower rates of incarceration, but also far lower rates of (especially violent) crime. How do you explain this?

Gus Snarp said...

Well, that's why we rely on statistics and not anecdotal evidence. I lived through all those years, the later ones in some bad neighborhoods. I had a job that required me to work late and I walked home through those bad neighborhoods at all hours of the night. I never once witnessed a crime other than pan-handling and being asked if I wanted to buy drugs or knew where someone could buy them. I was a victim of crime exactly once because when I was a teenager I was stupid enough to trust someone in my house who I shouldn't have. So if Andrew's experience is representative, crime was rampant from 1975 to 2000, you couldn't safely walk down the street. If my experience is representative then crime practically never occurred. The statistical fact is that crime is (and was) rare. Even changes in the crime rate in the U.S. are changes to a generally very low rate. I'm sorry for your experience Andrew, but it is not evidence that overpopulating our prisons has reduced crime, nor is there any reason to believe that it has much to do with drugs.

Andrew said...


Yes, I favor complete decriminalization of all drugs (including prescription pain killers and the like). Nature will sort things out among those who abuse them. We could chop the judiciary system, police force, and prison system in half (at least) by decriminalizing drugs. We could also raise tax revenue by collecting tarriffs on imports of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, etc., and "sin" and sales taxes on their purchase.

Gus Snarp:

If you work through the list, and even if I include crimes I merely witnessed, its about one crime per year. So its not like the streets were overwhelmed with imminent danger at every turn, but there was a persistent undertone of caution needed, and a perception of a lack of safety and security, especially when you weren't watching your home, car, and possessions. There was a feeling that people were on the prowl looking to rip you off, because it didn't take long for things to vanish off the front porch or your house to be broken into (3 to 4 days into a vacation, it seemed like the theives had figured out you were gone and broke in). Then, if you left your bike outside a store unlocked, it would be gone within 15 minutes.

I will say that from 1994 onwards, my family and I have had zero involvement with crime in the Philadelphia area, and the atmosphere on the streets is completely different than it was 15-20 years ago. I attribute this to the abatement of the crack epidemic, the increase in prison population, and the termination of welfare programs forcing people to go and get jobs instead of loafing and committing crimes. I went from living at my old house where all the windows had to be barred and the doors triple bolted to keep people out, to my new one where my front door was entirely panes of glass and allowed you to clearly see my expensive TV/DVD/stereo equipment in my living room, and where I could leave the garage door up overnight, or the back door open all day and never have the slightest worry of something being stolen - because there were no longer shady characters constantly casing the neighborhood houses and and looking for old ladies to steal purses from.

JuniorUK said...

Where is the GULAG? In the worst years a number of people in Soviet prisons was less than in the States now.
Makes me rethink the history.


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