Prison statistics: Is the increase due to drug offenses or something else?

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I’m fascinated with prison. I couldn’t tell you why, but I like to watch documentaries, television shows, and movies about it, and I’m currently reading “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2001, Vintage),” about a correction officer’s one year on the job at Sing Sing prison in Ossining, New York. It’s a dark read. That job doesn’t sound fun AT ALL.

At Fordham University, we have a professor who researches elderly prisoners (of which there are a lot of these days), and it’s very interesting. Here’s an excerpt from a piece she wrote for The Huffington Post:

When 69-year-old Betty Smithey was released from Arizona State Prison last week after serving 49 years for murdering a 15-month-old child, walking with a cane, she gave a face to a population that often goes unnoticed — the aging men and women in our prison system.

With some 246,000 men and women over 50 in America’s overly stretched prison system, should we as a society consider releasing the fragile, the ill, and the dying among these prisoners?

Read the rest here.

Earlier this month, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report about the unprecedented growth in U.S. prisons.

It found that from 1973 to 2009, the prison population grew from about 200,000 to approximately 2.2 million. With this spike, the U.S. now holds close to a quarter of the world’s prisoners, even though it accounts for just 5 percent of the global population.

The report found that “although incarceration rates have risen, crime rates have followed no clear path. Violent crime rose, then fell, rose again and then declined over the 30-plus years tracked in the study.

“The best single proximate explanation of the rise in incarceration is not rising crime rates, but the policy choices made by legislators to greatly increase the use of imprisonment as a response to crime,” the authors note. Since the 1970s, these policies have come to include the war on drugs, mandatory minimums for drug crimes and violent offenses, three-strikes laws and “truth-in-sentencing” mandates that require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. [source]

But analysis by a professor at Fordham Law finds fault with the NRC’s report. He says they shouldn’t be counting drug offenses and violent offenses separately, as the increase in “incarceration rates have always been a story about violence,” not drugs.

“Between 1980 and 2009, over 50% of prison growth is due to increases in violent inmates, and only about 22% due to increases in drug offenders,” he writes, adding:

Between 1980 and 1990, state prisons grew by 387,400 inmates, and 36% of those additional inmates were incarcerated for violent crimes. (The math is below if anyone wants to see it.*) Two things stand out here:

The NRC is right that drugs mattered more during the 1980s than after, and that violent crimes played the dominant role in the 1990s and beyond.
But even in the 1980s violent crimes mattered more. Drugs were important, but (by a slight edge) violent crimes even more so. US incarceration rates have always been a story about violence.

Interesting. Read his whole post about this over at PrawfsBlawg.

 

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