Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Incarceration Nation II

It occurs to me, regarding incarceration rates, that it would make sense to simply show per capita incarceration rates by state. So here you go - a map that is adapted, again, from Pew's One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 (pdf):

incarceration rate by state

More so than in the map of prison funding, some clear geographical tendencies emerge here. One way to characterize the deepest blue states here would be as all the Gulf Coast states plus South Carolina, Oklahoma, Delaware and Arizona. Another way would be: the Deep South plus a few outlying states. Yet another would be: the states Goldwater won in the 1964 US presidential election, plus Texas, Oklahoma, Delaware and Florida. And another still would be: 10 of the 21 states (+ DC) with the lowest proportion of non-Hispanic whites.

I think all of these characterizations, actually, tell us something about why these states, in particular, have the highest incarceration rates: I mean, is anyone surprised that the Deep South has most of the highest incarceration rates in the country? But I think the last characterization is especially interesting. Look at this map based on data from

non-hispanic white population by state

Someone who actually knows a thing or two about statistics would be able to run some sort of regression analysis to check this hypothesis, but it looks to me like there's a pretty strong correlation between a state's incarceration rate and its non-white population, but that that correlation is somewhat mitigated by certain regional variables (if the state is in the Interior West, it will have a relatively high number of prisoners; if it's in the Northeast or Far West, a relatively low number). And actually, it might be more correct to say that the correlation holds for states with the smallest white majorities, since for three of the four states which actually have majority-minority populations (Hawaii, New Mexico, and California, but not Texas), the incarceration rates are not notably high.

And really, all of this is totally unsurprising, if you accept this premise: that most of what happens in American politics is inflected by race, and in particular, by the white majority's fears about non-whites. Given this premise, you would expect crime and punishment policies to tend towards the more punitive in places where a large minority population would seem to pose a threat to the white majority, since in those places the (white) majority will be more likely to support policies driven by emotional gratification (i.e., 'lock up the bastards!'). In such places, since non-whites tend to be poorer and have less social capital, the 'bastards' will tend to be equated with non-whites. (And indeed, the incarceration rate for non-whites is much, much higher than it is for whites (one of the strongest bits of evidence that we are still a long ways from a "post-racial" era).) But in places like northern New England, the Upper Midwest, and the northern Plains, non-whites constitute a minuscule portion of the population, so there's less racial anxiety among the white majority. And, since almost everyone in places like North Dakota and Vermont is white, it ends up being mostly white people that are sent to prison; it makes it a little harder to work up the old "lock up the bastards!" dander when the bastards in question (or in the mind's eye, at least) don't have a different (which is to say, dismissable and otherizable) racial identity from one's own.

This could also explain why three of the four states with the highest non-white populations - the aforementioned Hawaii, California, and New Mexico - aren't in the top quintile of highest incarceration rate states. In those states, whites are in the minority, so you'd expect them to be much less able to translate their collective interests into actual policy.

I don't mean to suggest that high incarceration rates are just a function of white racial anxiety. Like I said, there are regional patterns too - I don't think the high rates in the Interior West have especially much to do with race. And I guess it's possible that crime rates might be somehow related to the number of prisoners in a given state. But really: it's the United States we're talking about here. That pretty much means that race is a factor.


Matt Osborne said...

An excellent analysis!

Andrew said...

Race is a factor because blacks and hispanics commit a very disproportionate share of all crimes, especially violent crimes. Those two groups =/= to all non whites which is why a state like Hawaii doesn't fall into the same category.

I suspect that if you compared a map of where murders are committed to your lock-up maps, you'd find the correlation, since the commission of other crimes is the driver of the murder number (i.e. more assaults and rapes leads to more murders; more armed robberies leads to more murders).

The murder maps of New York City and Philadelphia published by the New York Times and Inquirer show this even on a local level. Roughly 90% of murders occur in minority neighborhoods among minorities in those cities. The data won't entirely bear that out on the Philly map because all Hispanics and Arabs are classified as white in crime reports - but the names of the victims on the site betray the ethnicity - victims are usually killed by members of their own race. On the New York map, its very clear that whites and asians commit just 10% of the murders.

Once we move past this revelation, its hardly shocking that minority crimes rates drive minority incarceration rates.

Unknown said...


Once we move past this revelation, its hardly shocking that minority crimes rates drive minority incarceration rates.

But this still begs the question: why do US minorities have such a large crime rate? I mean, in most European cities, you'll see around 1/3 being foreigners (mainly Muslims, Latin Americans, Romanian gypsies, etc.).

But crime rates still remain low, i.e. 3 people killed annually in Munich (pop: 1.4m) compared to 400 in Philadelphia (pop: 1.5m). The difference is too large to be explained by a larger minority population in Philadelphia.

Greg said...

I've never been to Europe, but my impression of it is that some/many countries are having some trouble with race relations in recent years, BUT those race relations don't have nearly the kind of historical foothold they have in the US (especially, of course, blacks). So maybe the reason (or at least A reason) that minority crime is so much more common here in the States is that time and societal momentum have led over decades/centuries to a pretty systematically crummy situation for minorities in urban areas. Minorities tend to be de-facto segregated in cities far from the center and with substandard housing/roads/utilities/job opportunities/paychecks. Of course there are some exceptions, but they're just that. In the face of such conditions, it's no real wonder that tensions can run high and that a disproportionally high number of urban minorities turn to illegal methods to make money. Both of those can lead easily to violent crime. I'm not saying it's society's fault or anything, but their situation, which is out of their control, seems to make it relatively easy (and even sometimes rational!) to tend toward crime.

How do race relations in the States compare to those in Europe? Any Europeans?

Unknown said...


well, I have never visited the US, so any comparison may be flawed...

But I still feel race is a more important factor in the US than in Europe. I mean... 25 years ago, there were literally no blacks in Spain.

But now it's difficult to find a Spanish family with no black relatives, however far, due to interracial relationships or international adoptions (which are pretty common here). You can't be racist when your niece is black, or when your cousins are married to black people.

(On the other hand, that would have never happened if Spanish families were racist beforehand).

More integration is needed, but I think that's pretty good for a 25-year-old development. If Spanish blacks were living in ghettos (or even if people still told "white" and "black" people apart as two different categories) after centuries of living together, I'd feel my country to be an utter failure.

Europe has no racial problems, but a (Islam-related) culture-war problem.

"Minorities tend to be de-facto segregated in cities far from the center and with substandard housing/roads/utilities/job opportunities/paychecks."

In my opinion, that and the US gun culture are the original sins.

K H D and sometimes T said...

What does high incarceration rates mean though? Is this the % of population from that state that's in prison or the prison population in that state? Just because I'm from florida doesn't mean I'll end up in a florida prison...

Chachy said...

Andrew - I've found a couple maps of violent crime rates, but they're not consistent; one seemed to track non-white population percentage and the other did not. If you can find a reliable one, feel free to post the link. Of course, like Diego says, any comprehensive explanation of these phenomena has to account for why minority crime rates tend to be higher, and that in turn is bound up with class issues, etc...

Diego - Good points but this - "Europe has no racial problems" - is just not true.

Consonants - I guess it's possible that certain regions are exporting a lot of criminals to other states, but I don't really see why it would be the case in any systematic way that would distort the statistics.

Unknown said...


Western European countries have no racism in the sense of discriminating against a skin colour. This may not be true for some small areas/countries (Ireland, Saxony, etc.), but it holds true for Western Europe as a whole.

This is especially visible in interracial relationships and adoptions. The US is at the same time a country with an extremely PC speech (certainly unmatched in Europe!) coupled with a race-determined reality. How can only 2% of US marriages be interracial, despite centuries of living together?

In Spain, most foreigners came over the last decade, and mixed marriages (Spaniard-foreigner) already account for nearly 1 in 5 new marriages. I think these data are self-explaining.

So yes, anti-immigration, anti-militant Islam movements... you'll find aplenty. But that's not racism.

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Anonymous said...

I can see you haven't read 'Race, Evolution, and Behavior' by Dr Philippe Rushton.,_Evolution,_and_Behavior

"This could also explain why three of the four states with the highest non-white populations - the aforementioned Hawaii, California, and New Mexico - aren't in the top quintile of highest incarceration rate states. In those states, whites are in the minority, so you'd expect them to be much less able to translate their collective interests into actual policy".

No. The non-white populations in Hawaii, California, and New Mexico are heavily weighted towards Hispanics and Asians (esp in Hawaii). A key factor in the equation is African American presence.

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