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Who is Responsible for America's Swollen Prison Population?--Stuntz

Pretty much everyone—Republican or Democrat, right or left—familiar with America’s criminal justice system agrees that our prison population is far too large. The data are familiar: Adjusted for population, imprisonment has quintupled in the last thirty-five years. As of 2001 (America’s prison population has grown since then), the average incarceration rate in EU countries was 87 per 100,000 population. In the U.S., the comparable figure was nearly 700. (Link here) The black incarceration rate is several times higher than that.

Those numbers represent a social catastrophe. Who made it so? Who is responsible for the now-famous “punitive turn” in American criminal justice?

The best answer is probably: everyone in a position of political or legal authority over the last thirty years. But I’m pretty sure one common answer—we have a huge, disproportionately black prison population primarily because of the policy choices made by conservative Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—is wrong. The political right plainly contributed, and contributed a lot, to the generation-long run-up in our prison population. But the political left probably contributed even more.

One way to measure the difference is to look at change in state imprisonment rates during Democratic and Republican governorships. This summer, I’m going to try to record those data (the relevant numbers are easy to find), and see what correlations emerge when all the data are assembled. For now, all I have are scattered examples. Still, I’m finding a lot of examples like these—enough, I think, to suggest a pattern:

● Arizona: From 1975 to 1991, Arizona was governed by Democrats, save for Evan Mecham’s single year in office. Subtracting that year, Arizona’s imprisonment rate rose 218% during the relevant period. Nationwide, imprisonment rose 160% during the same period. From 1991 to 2003, the state was governed by Republicans. During those twelve years, the state’s imprisonment rate rose 33%, compared to a national average of 55%.

● Connecticut: From 1975 to 1991, Connecticut was governed by Democrats, and the state’s imprisonment rate rose a staggering 346%, compared to a national average of 174%. From 1991-95, Independent (and former Republican) Lowell Weicker held the governor’s chair; Republicans have held it since then. Since 1991, Connecticut’s imprisonment rate has risen 49%, compared to an average increase of 62% nationwide.

● Missouri: During Republican John Ashcroft’s governorship (1985-93), the state’s imprisonment rate rose 59%; nationwide, imprisonment rose 75% during those eight years. From 1993 to 2005, Democrats held Missouri’s governorship. During those twelve years, imprisonment rose 72%, compared to a national average increase of 40%.

● Ohio: Under Democratic Governor Dick Celeste (1983-91), Ohio’s imprisonment rate rose 109%, compared to a nationwide average of 73%. Under Republicans George Voinovich and Bob Taft, who governed the state for the next sixteen years, Ohio’s imprisonment rate rose 32%; the national average for those years was a 62% increase.

● Texas: Under Republican Governors Bill Clements (1987-91) and George W. Bush (1995-2000), the state’s imprisonment rate rose 29% and 8%, respectively, compared to national average increases of 36% and 16%. Under current Republican Governor Rick Perry (2000-present), Texas’ imprisonment rate has fallen 6%; nationwide, imprisonment has risen 5% during Perry’s time in office. During Democrat Ann Richards’ administration (1991-95), the state’s imprisonment rate rose 128%, compared to an average increase of 33% nationwide.

● Virginia: A series of Democratic governors served from 1982 to 1994. During those twelve years, Virginia’s imprisonment rate rose 129%—the same as the national average. The following eight years saw two Republican administrations, during which imprisonment rose 13%, compared to a national average increase of 22%. The difference seems starker if you look at Doug Wilder’s (1990-94) and George Allen’s (1994-98) governorships. Wilder, America’s first elected black governor, presided over an imprisonment increase of 46%; the national average during those four years was a 33% increase. Virginia’s imprisonment rate fell 2% during Allen’s governorship; nationwide, imprisonment rose 19% during the same period.

All the figures cited above are calculated based on data in the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics—Online, available here, and in previous hard-copy volumes of the Sourcebook.

There are more examples like these—along with some counterexamples, though I haven’t found as many of those. The numbers cited above might turn out to be an aberration; I won’t know until I go through the relevant data for all fifty states. For now, suppose they aren’t aberrational; suppose the above examples illustrate a pattern. Why might imprisonment rise more under Democrats than under Republicans? The answer, I think, lies in two famous episodes in presidential campaigns in the recent past.

The elder George Bush beat Michael Dukakis, at least in part, on the strength of Willie Horton’s crime spree; Horton was a black inmate who was furloughed from a Massachusetts prison on Dukakis’ watch, and who committed armed robbery and rape while released. Four years later, Bill Clinton was determined not to let the same thing happen to him. So, shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton returned to Arkansas to supervise the execution of a mentally retarded black inmate named Ricky Ray Rector. The Rector execution inoculated Clinton on crime, showed his willingness to stand tough against criminals in general and black criminals in particular. It worked: Clinton finished a close second in New Hampshire, and went on to win the White House.

Notice the nature of that political exchange. For Republicans to win votes on crime, all they need do is talk about it: the Willie Horton ad that helped turn the 1988 election is a prime example. No Clinton-style inoculation is needed. For Democrats to win those same votes, they need to take the kind of action that shows their toughness: hence Rector’s execution. Rising imprisonment has been the price Democrats have had to pay in order to win power and enact the policy changes they really want. At least, that story seems to fit the scattered examples listed above.

If the story is true, two political facts are key. First, black voters are solidly Democratic; politicians running for state and national office need not and do not compete for their votes. In the 1950s and 1960s, when black voters outside the South were swing voters—Richard Nixon won a third of the black vote in 1960, and Eisenhower won more than that in 1956—imprisonment rates fell, and fell sharply. (Not so in the South, where blacks were denied the right to vote until the late 1960s.) Imprisonment began rising only a few years after black voting patterns changed. Second, the votes of blue-collar whites are up for grabs; the two parties must compete for them, as this year’s presidential campaign reminds us. Rising imprisonment, and especially rising black imprisonment, might fairly be seen as the product of that competition.

No doubt one might draw many lessons from this sad story. Here’s mine: Criminal justice works badly when the voters whose preferences govern the system are not the voters who feel the effects of crime and punishment most directly. Over the last thirty-five years, our justice system has been governed primarily by the votes of suburban and small-town whites. But crime and punishment alike are heavily concentrated in poor city neighborhoods, and especially in black neighborhoods. Democracy works best when those making the relevant choices bear the cost of those choices. The politics of crime in the United States doesn’t meet that standard: choices are made by some, and costs are borne by others. No wonder those costs are so staggeringly high.


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Comments ( 48 )

I been around, know, drink and work with those that go to prision. They work hard to get there. They guzzle booze, cram pills, snort and shoot. They don't like to work. They have multiple women with their children. These guys are beyond loosers. They are usually total assholes, drug/drunk, theiving women beaters.

And, you know what? It's hard to get them in prisons. They have to be caught, and convicted many times before they do time. And that doesn't include the ten times for each time they are caught that they have done something and gotten away with it.

Sorry, no sale from me. I see these guy go off all the time, and I see them back at the bar on pills and anything else after they come out.

Let us not leave out drug prohibition.

A program which is even more favored in black communities than white communities. They scream - "get the dealers away from my kids". Never "sell the stuff in drugstores".

High black incarceration rates are in large part a self inflicted wound.

BTW it might be good to track drug laws vs incarceration rates.

"crime and punishment alike are heavily concentrated in poor city neighborhoods, and especially in black neighborhoods. Democracy works best when those making the relevant choices bear the cost of those choices."

Maybe I'm a bit unsophisticated, but I figured that if blacks wanted to reduce their rate of imprisonment they might do something simple - like not kill, not rape, not rob, not assault, etc. That's certainly the thing that keeps this white boy out of jail.

It's also certainly true that males who grow up outside the influence of morally strong, committed fathers have a huge increase in their risk of criminal behavior. I wonder if when the Great Society programs subsidized single female parents (which in our country is disproportionally made up of black women) the Democrats not only bought black votes, but created the prison problem. Just thinking in my simple way, folks.

Further, large fractions of those in jail are there for drug related crime. Perhaps we might learn a lesson from alcohol prohibition, put the mob out of work, and legalize the damn stuff for adults.

I will accept everything you say here, but I think there is a simpler reason. It is also deeper and more lasting. If there is one demographic fact that matches with the likelihood of imprisonment, it is a single parent household.

In the 1960s two key trends began in America and especially in the African-American community. Both were unintended consequences. Both began with an overly ambitious effort to correct a noticeable wrong.

In an effort to secure fair treatment of women, congress and the courts undermined marriage as an institution. Women were to be freed of the shackles of bad marriages. To some extent, they were, But in the effort, marriage itself was devalued and the two parent home was was downgraded as a priority. Perhaps this was necessary, but its effect on children, especially boys, was devastating. Bullies and gang leaders rushed to fill the lacking male role model. Women were liberated, at the cost of their children,

After the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963, Congress began passing a series of laws that were known as Lyndon Johnson's great society. All were well intended and none more so that the Civil Rights Acts. The problems they addressed were both well known and obvious. The need could hardly be questioned. But the methods they imposed began a wholesale assault on the one institution that had provided safety and security to African Americans throughout American history, the family. The state replaced the family as the security system for Blacks and the welfare state replaced the father as provider. Young Black men were encouraged to abandon their children because they were seen as less reliable than child welfare agencies. Young women, especially African-Americans, were encouraged to leave husbands if any problems appeared in the marriage. And there are no problem free marriages.

After a half century of well meaning social welfarism, a large percentage of boys in the Black community do not know their fathers and a larger percentage age growing up without a regular male role model. After reaching young adulthood, the same boys are not encouraged to take responsibility for any children they may have. Given that they are denied a father to learn from and a wife to mute their worst impulses, is it any surprise that they are more likely to commit acts that will land them in prison?

I realize that this is not political correct, but can we afford to ignore these problems any longer? The road to Hell is paved with good intentions and it is becoming a freeway in our country.

I think the political affiliation of the governor and the rise in incarceration rates misses the real culprit -- politics on crime, at least in Georgia and Virginia (where I've prosecuted and defended criminals) starts at a much more local level, and is ultimately the responsibility of legislatures. While I was in Georgia, a democratic General Assembly crowed about how it was tougher on crime than any other. I don't necessarily disagree with your overall analysis, but it is probably more useful to compare legislatures than governorships.

That's some new conventional wisdom ya got there, Mr. Stuntz. I guess I've been out of it too long to remember Eisenhower, but I *do* remember LBJ and his "Great Society."

That was the birth of the welfare state which held sway until Newt rode, too late, into town. It rewarded mothers and fathers to separate. And so two generations of boys have grown up without fathers, thanks to LBJ, the remaining Kennedys, Nixon, and all the rest up to (but not including) RR.

What do you suppose happens to a 12 year old boy, forced by the unintended consequences of failed social policy, to take lessons in manhood from a 17 year old gangbanger? Your numbers answer that question.

But, there were and are plenty of poor whites, too. So why did Blacks suffer so disproportionately? Hey, all you history and sociology students out there-- there's room for more than one doctoral thesis here, I think!

"No doubt one might draw many lessons from this sad story. Here’s mine: Criminal justice works badly when the voters whose preferences govern the system are not the voters who feel the effects of crime and punishment most directly."

It's also possible to take the lesson that democracy reacts to situations about the same as any government. In other words, you might have confused cause and effect.

It's not the political process that leds one to crime and criminals do not commit offenses because of their political leanings. The only way policy comes into play is in the determination of what is a crime. So, once again, this comes down to "if only drugs were legalized...."

BTW, I was talking about the white, sub working class idiots.

Instead of releasing these brain patterned, life long knumbskulls onto the working class stiffs that have to eat all this, how about we send them all to French language school and see how that works out? Souldn't be too hard.

One of the reasons elite educated and income people are so sympathetic is because they don't live and work and drink with these people. Put the half way houses, public housing in the upper income towns. Not just a few token, but all of them.

I'll support that.

BTW, I was talking about the white, sub working class idiots.

Instead of releasing these brain patterned, life long knumbskulls onto the working class stiffs that have to eat all this, how about we send them all to French language school and see how that works out? Souldn't be too hard.

One of the reasons elite educated and income people are so sympathetic is because they don't live and work and drink with these people. Put the half way houses, public housing in the upper income towns. Not just a few token, but all of them.

I'll support that.

I have to agree with the fellow who pointed out that it is actually hard to get into jail. You have to work at it.

People who say we have too many people in jail clearly don't read the newspapers.

32 shootings in Chicago last weekend? Three men shot in Baltimore yesterday?

Not to mention the endless string of petty crimes (short of murder and rape.) which really don't make the news.

Somebody should calculate how many more people we need to put into jail to reduce the murder rate to levels seen, say, in Germany.

Then budget for it.

When inner city blacks blow holes in each other as part of their marketing program for their drug product, who do you think the government seeks to disarm? Me, the typical white guy.

Throw them in jail. Leave them there. The classic NYT headline of "Prison population at all time high, yet crime rates continue to fall", come to mind.

"Who is Responsible for America's Swollen Prison Population?"

Uh, criminals?

"Democracy works best when those making the relevant choices bear the cost of those choices."

Who do you think is paying a disproportionate share of costs for the courts, the prisons and prisoner upkeep?

This is a typical liberal-progressive argument looking for and failing to find supporting data. 'If there are a lot of blacks in prison, that must be the fault of evil white people, especially conservatives.' Utter crap. Grow up and accept that adults are responsible for their own circumstances in life. ALL of us, not just whites, make choices that determine whether we are going to be criminal inmates or free contributing members of society.

When you do your research this summer, follow the money. Look at the fines as well as the incarcerations. I bet you will find that fines provide a significant part of the revenue of non-urban counties. Add that to the jobs and votes provided to and received from the employees of the prison systems and you will find an institution very attractive to anyone wanting to expand government.

That might also fit your correlation with democrat and republican incarceration rates.

You're assuming -- bizarrely -- that for some odd reason, putting criminals in prison is some sort of a problem. You also didn't run the stats. Whites are overrepresented in prison, given the crime rates by race.

Maybe I'm just a shallow thinker, but I could swear that there is a link between behavior and consequence. One of the things I base this on is that I have never personally been anywhere NEAR being imprisoned. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I have always attributed this absence of imprisonment to the fact that I have never robbed anyone; I've never kidnapped anyone; I've never beaten up a store clerk to get the money from the till; and, I've never run down a police officer with my car. Maybe I'm missing something, but I just keep having a strong feeling that there's a connection there somewhere. I suppose I'm just lacking in understanding. Nevertheless I REFUSE to feel guilty for the fact that people are punished for what they do and I resent the amount of taxes I pay to house them, feed them, entertain them, provide them medical care and then pay all those same things through AFDC for their families. I say let's clone Sheriff Arpaio and let his clan run the prisons. I suspect the prison population would start declining.

I initially thought this was another Fox Butterfield type conundrum; why are prisons full when crime is down?

Instead, the logical conclusion is that black-on-black crime should be tried before black juries, without mandatory sentencing. Maybe a Democrat candidate should run with that platform. Good luck with that.

Interesting premise, no doubt there is something to it. It would be interesting to know what all these people in prison have done to get there. I suspect many are there for drug crimes, but wouldn't legalizing drugs cause more mal in se crimes?

The closure of the vast majority of Mental Health facilities in California is a contributor to the prison population as well. The question is why do we continue to inprison mental health patients when we have model legislation available that would put them in mental health facilities? My guess is follow the money. Our California "Republician" govenor vetoed legislation last year that would have set up mental health courts in the same manner as drug courts. Why? Follow the money. I would hope that in your study this summer you are able to show the percentage of mental health prisioner that have been added to our prision system since we closed the vast majority of mental health facilities (that were run by qualified mental health practitioneers and not prison guards who do not understand mental health)

Umm... Incarceration rates are different in US than Europe. Ok. How do crime rates compare? Racial demographics? Foreign populations? Assimilation?

Do European countries have race pimps convincing subpopulations that the police are out to get them and excusing every arrest as racism, thus promoting escalating criminal behavior until authorities MUST arrest, try, convict, and incarcerate?

And what about the correlation of our increasing prison population with decreasing crime rates? I'm not so sure that "everyone" sees increasing prison populations as a bad thing.

The people most responsible for the high black incarceration rate are the black criminals.

The war on drugs is a major factor in the rising prison population. In many cases, going to jail turns someone who made a stupid mistake into someone who is a hardened criminal, replete with psychological trauma, sexual hang-ups, and racist inclinations.

I have been the guy almost going to jail. Due to luck, and the careful execution of free will, right now I am a productive member of society - and I am a taxpayer not an expensive ward of the state, who upon release will be unable to find good work or build solid relationships.

Plenty of the people in jail don't belong there. Being in jail is immeasurably unpleasant, and often inhumane. The cost to society of mentally scarring these individuals is quite often not thought of as part of the sentence. We are sentencing society to bearing the burden of these people.

Don't get me wrong - plenty of people belong in jail. Just not a good deal of the drug offenders. One way to reduce the prison populations is to re-consider the drug laws.

When you compare the number of persons in US prisons to the number of persons in European prisons, shouldn't you also look at how they sentence people there? Europeans seem to be much more lenient in sentencing, even for crimes such as murder, than Americans. Thus people spend less time in prison.

Unfortunately, the analysis presented here is missing a critical angle: what were the crime rates for each state in each time period?

As noted by Ken Hahn, our society made certain decisions to fix social problems that exacerbated other problems. One of those was crime: crime rates exploded, particularly in cities, and our states had to respond to that. Hence incarceration rates rose.

And, importantly, crime rates then came down. Locking up career criminals (and yes you do have to work at it to go to prison) had a beneficial effect, one that both city dwellers and suburbanites value.

Your relation of crime rates to political party affiliation is, unfortunately, a simple association that doesn't get at causality.

I read stuff like this and if I didn't know better I would think the only people who ever go to prison are black, petty drug offenders. having been both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer and still having several close friends who do criminal defense, I know better. First, a lot of people who are in prison for drug offenses are there for other things to and would be in prison even if we had never had prohibition. Drug offenses are very easy to prove, either you have to stuff of you don't, so prosecutors often drop other more difficult to prove charges like assault in exchange for a guilty plea on the drug offenses. When that happens the anti-prohibitionists point to another drug offender filling a prison cell at the expense of a more violent offender, but that is not entirely true.

The other thing to remember is who gets arrested for drugs. Lots of middle class and upper middle class people who are not normally criminals use drugs. But me sitting here fat dumb and happy in my suburban home and very unlikely to get caught for use because I am an otherwise law abiding person and have very few if any interactions with the cops. But if I were a criminal and beat the hell out of my wife on occasion and robbed people and wrote bad checks or was already on probation for this or that crime, I am going to interact with the cops a hell of a lot more and am going to be much more likely to get caught for drug use. Ending prohibition would not keep me out of jail for long. It would just mean that I would be there for something else.

We have a large prison population because we have a large criminal population. By that I don't mean people who break stupid laws like drug laws, but people who are theives and violent and do things that ought to put them into prison. I would encourage anyone here to go down and watch a day of state criminal court, you won't find a lot of innocent people there. You will find a lot of pretty stupid and messed up and occasionally dangerous people there.

One last note on the prison population. Has anyone thought of the effect of endless illegal immigration on this? Not that the immigrants commit crimes but in that it limits the options of those who do end up in jail. Suppose you are someone who deals drugs or robs someone or makes a mistake that lands you in prison. When you get out you really do want to go straight and live a productive life. Now if you are say a high school drop out with a prison record you won't be landing any six figure jobs. You are going to have to start at the bottom and do something like move furniture or mow lawns until you have a work history and can move up. If you come to me to ask for such a job, why on earth would I hire you, someone who has a prison record, when I can hire any number of salt of the earth Mexican peasants who are lining up outside my door and will work for whatever I pay them and if I don't like them I can fire them at will with no worries of lawsuits or anything else? I wouldn't. Illegal immigration totally screws those at the bottom of our labor force and makes it extremely difficult for people who have been in prison to go straight.

prison guard's union

California Correctional Peace Officers Association
The California Prison system is the third largest penal system in the country, costing $5.7 billion dollars a year and housing over 161,000 inmates. Since 1980 the number of California prisons has tripled and the number of inmates has jumped significantly. In the past few years controversies involving prison expansion, sky-rocketing costs, and claims of mismanagement and inmate abuse have put the California prison system under heightened public scrutiny.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA) is the California prison guards' union. In recent years the CCPOA has become a major player in California politics. Its political influence has grown to the point that it is widely considered to be one of the most powerful political forces in Sacramento. Its lobbying efforts and campaign contributions have greatly facilitated the passage of legislation favorable to union members.
San Diego Union Tribune
DATE: August 15, 2000
Have you ever wondered why California's prison population grew from 23,264 in 1980 to 160,846 in July 2000? It is not because rapists and murderers are finally getting their due; for the most part, that was already happening. What has driven the growth of the prison system in California over the past two decades is the 25-fold increase in the number of drug offenders sentenced to prison under harsh new state sentencing laws for virtually every offense imaginable. Because of these laws, California now has the highest rate of drug offender incarcerations in the nation - 134 per 100,000. A rate that exceeds states such as Texas and Louisiana, where compassion and sympathy for law breakers is not highly prized (49 per 100,000 and 106 per 100,000 respectively). Although such a system seems counter to public safety interests, there are powerful political forces at work in California that promote and sustain the present system. Chief among these forces is the prison guard's union. Because they benefit from prisons teeming with inmates, the guards lavish campaign contributions on political candidates. The influence that the prisons guard's campaign contributions buys, allows them to pressure elected officials to enact sentencing laws that keep inmates in prison longer, thus expanding the overall pool of prisoners and creating a "need" for more prisons. The guards union blatantly uses its political influence to promote the funding of more prisons.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature approved a $7.4 billion bond measure last April to provide 53,000 new prison and county jail beds and to increase funding for rehabilitation and drug treatment........
...........U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson ruled in 2006 that the $1.1 billion medical care system in California's 33 prisons was "broken beyond repair," with one unnecessary death per week, and violated the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment......



I've been retired for a couple of decades now but when I wore the badge it was the practice everywhere I knew of that white prisoners served a greater percentage of their sentances before parole than black prisoners. There seemed to be some sort of racial "critical mass" where a prison became uncontrollable.
One thing that hasn't been mentioned is that when I hired on a lot of criminals were put on the straight and narrow by a few well placed smacks. Haul a kid into an alley and beat the foo out of himand it is quite likely he's going to straighten out. Haul that same kid in and then, for the rest of his life he has a criminal record. Even a record of probation is still a criminal record. Bruises heal. Records stay.
I concur with the folks who mention how difficult it is to get into prison.

I agree with most of what has been written in the comments here. I know several repeat inmates, and they have worked hard to get any jail time they received. From what I have seen, a young person starting out on a life of crime will appear before a judge many times before they end up in jail for the briefest period.
The criminal types have very poor self discipline or impulse control. They get away with most of their crimes. When they do get caught, they usually are released, or if they are punished, the final sentence is up to a year after the crime was committed. The current justice system does not deter the typical criminal, because the criminal does not make the connection between today's crime and a theoretical future imprisonment.
Eventually, when they have a long list of charges and previous convictions, they finally get a stiff sentence as a repeat offender. By the time this happens, the criminal is already in a deep rut.
It would be much better if young people knew to expect jail time after the first misdemenor convicition. Then they would grow up with an understanding that they should not commit any crimes at all.

Um, didn't you leave out the fact that the victims of crime are also disproportionately inner city blacks? Isn't it true that the make-up of the prison population roughly approximates those convicted criminals' victim group?

Also, to what extent is the surge in prison populations connected to non-violent drug possession offenses? When it comes to drug policy, Republicans and Democrats seem equally backwards. Also, presumably, once a non-violent person is sent to prison the chances of him coming back violent are very dramatically increased.

Finally, it would have been interesting to see to what extent the imprisonment trend matches up with the nationwide decrease in crime trend. Could it be that putting many criminals in prison results in. . . less crime?

Excellent and informative comments from "John" at 11:42

Pretty much everyone ... agrees that our prison population is far too large.

I'm curious about this. For one thing, is there any actual data to suggest that "pretty much everyone" thinks this way? For another, what does "too large" even mean? Should we declare that the prison population of the US must by law never exceed X number of people, and then release assorted muggers and rapists who are "over the limit", so to speak?

If innocent people are in jail, we need to release them. But the notion that the mere fact of people being in jail represents an injustice, I cannot agree with.

The argument that people in a locality should have laws specific to that locality is an interesting one, but the whole liberal project in the last fifty years has been to stamp that sort of thinking out.

Sorry, but I just had to respond to John, who has worked as a prosecutor.

Has anyone thought of the effect of endless illegal immigration on this? Not that the immigrants commit crimes

Apart from the fact that simply being an illegal alien is a crime (see the word "illegal"), many millions of them are guilty of felonies. Providing false or fraudulent identity data to employers and/or the IRS is punishable by up to five years in jail and a quarter-million dollar fine. The fact that our government flouts the law in this area is itself criminal behavior in my book.

"Democracy works best when those making the relevant choices bear the cost of those choices. The politics of crime in the United States doesn’t meet that standard: choices are made by some, and costs are borne by others. No wonder those costs are so staggeringly high."

The above statements are severely in conflict.

The majority (ie democracy) decide to criminalize behavior they don't like. The majority pays for the jails so they don't have to live among and in fear of the few who would break those laws. Are you saying that the majority, (by definition, the victims) should penalize themselves for being harmed by those in the minority? How is that "democracy working best"???

Democracy absolutely IS: the majority vs the minority.

One could illustrate many scenarios where the concept of the majority letting the minority exercize their will freely would be ill advised.

Consider Al-qaeda, Nazism, or some other variety of criminals.

It goes without saying that the majority's laws will inequitably affect those outside of the group.

Some argue that exact point is the problem with democracies - that the whims of the majority trample on the few. One solution is a strong bill of rights, which the United States no longer has.

Perhaps if we had the right to our bodies and self medicate, there would be fewer people in prison on narcotics charges. Alas, the majority witholds that right from our society.

The way I look at how the Left and Right are both responsible for the incarceration rate pertains to a fundamental assumption common to both -- the idea of the State as parent.

The Left sees the State as a doting, non-judgmental parent gushing unconditional love. Their ideal State refrains from moral judgment while rushing to bail people out of whatever disasters they bring upon themselves, no matter how much they might deserve it.

The Right sees the State as a stern parent, heavy on the discipline and control, who seeks not only to pronounce moral judgment, but to *implement* it "for our own good" by banning behaviour they don't like, whether it is actually criminal (i.e. has a victim) or not. Lest they spoil the child, of course, they go heavy with the rod of long sentences.

Put the two together, and see how the synergy operates: faced with millions of overgrown children doing stupid things like drugs, small-time crime etc. on the expectation that there will be some Leftist bleeding-heart altruist there to bail them out, the Right responds by cracking down on the resulting "immorality" of victimless crimes such as drug use and prostitution -- arresting more people and lengthening sentences.

That's a simplified picture of course, but that pattern underlies the entire thing, particularly the race issue. With the modern political debate being only over what sort of parent the State should be, we should not be shocked to find so many spoiled children among us. What else would you expect?

How about the idea of a State that treats people like adults, left free to reap the consequences of their choices, good and bad?

Why the "high black incarceration rate?" Maybe when these black kids were younger, they sat in the pews of an absurdly prejudiced church. Maybe their only black male role model was a crackpot preacher who told them white society was the source of all their problems. No matter how hard they studied or worked or tried, the "white system" would always keep them down.

So, once they hit the streets, there were no rules. No law they would recognize. And they eventually went to prison, just as the crackpot preacher no doubt predicted.

Jim Carrey's character in "Liar, Liar" put it brilliantly when asked by a client how to stay out of jail. I'll paraphrase, so the language stays civilized:


No dice, Stuntz. Those thugs earned their way into 8x10 cells and no amount of society-blaming will change that. Matter of fact, every time I see documentaries or read about the crimes they've committed before and after imprisonment, the more I advocate summary execution.

The 4/18/08 post on HispanicNashville.com mentioned this same phenomenon in regard to immigrants. U.S. immigration laws are enforced almost exclusively against illegal immigrants who can't influence those laws, whereas enforcement against voters is comparatively lax.

James - as for illegal immigration itself being a "crime" - why does ICE say (see here) that of the 100 recent arrests in Chattanooga, none were criminal arrests?

Interesting idea.

I think WT is right when he suggests that legislatures are more likely to be responsible for imprisonment rates than governors. But I would take it further: neither governors nor legislatures convict and sentence. I think a far more meaningful statistical correlation would be to the makeup of the courts.

I also think you need to be quite clear in what you mean by "rate". "87 per 100,000" is not a "rate". If you do choose to look at the rates at which people are sentenced to prison, you'd also want to look at the other side of the coin - the rate at which people are released. And when we talk about the rate of imprisonment, it might be useful also to look at overall conviction rates, and imprisonment rates relative to the overall conviction rates.

I think it's rather sad that most of the commenters on this thread seem to be missing a very basic point: this isn't about the relative incarceration rates of blacks vs. whites, immigrants vs. drug dealers. And this analysis certainly isn't about the causes behind America's high crime rate. None of that would account for the patterns Stuntz thinks he sees in imprisonment rates in different states in different years. Unless, of course, you believe there's a reason why blacks are even more criminally inclined under Democratic governorships, or that drug dealers do less business under Republican governorships, or whatever.

Wow, this really struck a nerve, eh? Some of this has been mentioned before, but it strikes me that the analysis does suffer from overgeneralizing on the basis of who is holding the governorship. Legislatures matter as much or more and it would be interesting to see how the trends look if considered in that way. More importantly, I wonder about the use of the term "cost." It is true that minority urban populations bear the greater proportion of the "cost" of increased imprisonment in one sense, especially since the large proportion of prisoners from those communities are working-age males. But I'm not sure that it's right to simply say that the criminal justice system works at the behest of suburbanites who then impose "costs" on urban communities out of their fear of crime. In my view, a good bit of the suburbanization of American communities - and the hollowing out of urban ones - is on account of the crime problems that emerged especially in the 1960s and 1970s (and that exploded with crack cocaine in the 1980s). Those "suburbanites" that helped pass tougher criminal sentences were themselves former urbanites (or their parents were) and had moved out in part because the "cost" of urban life had become too great. People may have exaggerated the risks but it's hard to blame someone with young children who decides to leave the city after a few muggings in his neighborhood. (Crime certainly wasn't the only factor, but it was one). It is only now, as crime rates have decreased a good bit, that cities have returned. The exceptions - Detroit is a prime example - show how important crime is. What's more, and others have mentioned this as well, while pulling someone out of a community might indeed be a "cost" to that community, so too are the crimes that someone might commit. It seems more than one-sided to suggest that these costs too ought not be a part of the calculation.

It might be interesting to do a more fine-grained analysis of how criminal laws and enforcement evolved from, say, 1960 to today in cities that have been more aggressive and those that have not. I don't know the particulars, but how do NYC and Detroit and LA compare? What are their effects? It would be especially interesting to see how urban and minority politicians shifted (or didn't) over that time period in their attitudes toward criminal policy.

And as a final note, it's worth noting that despite your assurance that "everyone" who knows anything about this subject is sure that we incarcerate too many people, there is almost *no* political movement in that direction. So as an empirical matter, I'd have to say that it's hard for me to believe it.

John Lamb

" as for illegal immigration itself being a "crime" - why does ICE say (see here) that of the 100 recent arrests in Chattanooga, none were criminal arrests?"

If you take the trouble to read you own link, sans illegal-loving glasses, you will note that ICE said that certain people would not be CHARGED with a crime. It did not say that illegal immigration is not a crime, which would be clearly nonsensical. Doing something illegal IS commiting a crime. I'll see I if can post the legal definition of these words later, as written in Blacks Law Dictionary.

Reagardless of what you may believe, "crime" is not a synonm" for "felony". And in any case, the majority of illegal aliens have commited felonies. Provding false identification such as a fake SSN is a felony punishable by five years in jail. As to why ICE does not actually enforce the law - you'll need to ask ICE that. Or perhaps the Chamber of Commerce, since that's who ICE works for.

U.S. immigration laws are enforced almost exclusively against illegal immigrants who can't influence those laws

Is this an intentional parody? Next thing you'll be complaining that the laws against selling illicit drugs are enforced almost exclusively against the sellers of illicit drugs.

I am surprised by the amount of harsh judgment that people are levelling at criminals. Does free will exist? Yes. But can your ability and desire to behave in a manner that the greater white society has agreed upon be affected by your community and circumstances? Of course. Rather than saying, "we have a large prison population because there are a lot of criminals," the better question to ask is, "why do we have so many criminals?"

Many conservatives may blow off this question as liberal bleeding-heart-ism, but the question affects each of our pockets in a heavy way. It costs almost the same as an Ivy League education to keep prisoners in jail. If people want to cut taxes, then let's start with examining the problems that have inflated our taxes in the first place.

In this case, there is a clear correlation between the rise in prison populations and tougher drug sentencing. But the real problem is the community culture and the attitude of the youths who are growing up. Dealing with incarcerated juvenile girls, some of them didn't see a problem with going to jail and thought a drug dealer was a quality boyfriend.

Asking "who is responsible" also seems to me to be looking to place the blame. Shouldn't the discussion be "what can we do to change the prison population?"

You should collect your data and analyze it BEFORE you draw your conclusions.

Regarding legalizing drugs, it is a certain sign that someone doesn't really give a darn when they say the solution to the problem is to make or change a law somewhere.
Generally, nobody can be put in jail without a grand jury and a petite jury trial. In other words, those huge numbers of men in jail were sent there by joe public, not by mr. politician.
I spent over 3 weeks as part of a grand jury in new york city. Half the jury were black. (I am white). About half the cases were drug possession. I voted against every single one of them - not because I am a drug user commie (I have never used drugs in my life) but because it is evil to jail someone for such a stupid thing. Every single other member of the jury voted like sheep, and I watched the blacks bury their own people, even as they bemoaned America during the breaks.
Yet a little black girl, about 11 years old I think, who claimed to have been raped by her cousin was not allowed a trial, as the black women in the jury were hostile to her.
Don't sit in your armchair and point over to city hall. The problem is that today people have no moral compass, no integrity and are weak minded. No law will change that.






Most Americans are well aware that there are plenty of innocent poorer US citizens in our prison systems nationwide,but very few of us have ever heard about our US Congressional representatives who are mostly lawyers themselves, denying our Middle Class and Working Poor Americans proper legal counsel for their federal appeals. When any poorer American is charged with a Federal crime all legal costs and appeals are paid for,but when one is charged in the various 50 states and run out of higher court state appeal opportunities and need to appeal to the Federal courts,it appears that these poorer and mostly uneducated prison inmates are left to their own best lawyering skills to attempt to write a federal appeal that could sway a US Federal judge to grant them a new retrial.
Our US Congressional Representatives sleep soundly every night knowing there are reported to be an estimated 100,000 innocent Americans (some residing for decades even on death row) in our US Prisons who have been denied proper legal counsel to help them attempt to exonerate themselves with their Federal Appeals?

I can personally relate to this article for I am a black man that has been to prison. I admit, I got there by making some poor decisions which I'm sure we ALL have. I just ended getting caught.

I can only PARTLY agree with certain remarks insisting that the disproportionate rate of black inmates is because we're just a bunch raping, murdering, robbing criminals. I believe that the social injustice doesn't happen on the streets of America rather than in the legal system.

See, once inside the legal system blacks along with other minorities are handled much differently from whites. I guess that would make sense that there are so many black inmates...once we get there, we'll be there for a while!

What should be examined is the racial demographic of judges, prosecutors and policemen. If a judge or DA or police officer is looking at a person who doesn't look like his brother, father, uncle, cousin, friends, etc. it's only NATURAL to handle them differently. People look after their own.

Just like in most areas of life, sometimes it's not WHAT you know, but WHO you know. I think because so many white people have had advantages and been PLACED in positions of power and authority from the beginning of this country...white people will undoubtedly tend to "stay out of trouble". Lord knows I served time for taking something that didn't belong to me. When those "founding fathers" stole this country from the Native Americans who was there to lock them up?? Who locked up the slave owners for the RAPES and MURDERS and KIDNAPPING they committed??? Who was there to lock up the Klansmen who did the same??

While it was ILLEGAL for black people to READ, OWN PROPERTY or VOTE...there were plenty of white men doing just that. White people taking advantage of and oppressing other people is just as good a reason as any for so many minority communities to be suffering. If you disagree then i challenge you to present a race of people that the white man has not totally f---ed. They've been doing it forever and the trend continues.

Why are there so many poverty and crime infested black communities today? Willie Lynch got his point across....that's why.

I would like to see a racial breakdown of the prison population in U.S. prisons and jails from 1960 through 2008.

My guess is that you will find a huge increase in the percentage of African-Americans being incarcerated.

This is either the result of African-Americans suddenly losing their collective mind, or a systematic attempt to corral the so-called "Negro" population after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After all, the passage of both of those bills meant slavery and Jim Crow were no longer options.

By incarcerating African-Americans, the powers-that-be were able to create a subsociety that could not compete for educational or professional positions.

Some complain that the problem is the explosion of "single parent" households, and there can be no doubt that incarcerating African-American males at such an astonishing rate as you're likely to find (between 1960 and 2008) certainly didn't hurt the rise of single-parent households and all of the challenges that proceeded from there.

At this point, it's hard to imagine how we are going to put the genie back in the bottle. Imprisonment is almost a way of life in the black culture. And we certainly cannot stop imprisoning people who commit crimes - even against their own people.

But America created the problem; now America must live with its affects.

If blacks didn't commit crime they wouldn't be in prison. And you can blame LBJ and the "Great Society" programs for exacerbating an already out of control problem into the insanity we see today.