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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans and drugs. He is the author or co-author of numerous books and scholarly articles, and has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, The Guardian (UK), the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is usually in London, where he is an ad hoc policy adviser to the national and city government, an honorary professor of psychiatry at Kings College, a senior editorial adviser to the journal Addiction, and a member of The Athenaeum. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London, he is usually in Washington D.C., where he serves as a frequent science and policy advisor to federal agencies, and where he has served previously as an appointee to a White House commission and several Secretarial task forces. From July 2009-2010, he served as Senior Policy Advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. When he is not in the San Francisco Bay Area or London or Washington D.C., he is usually in the Middle East, where since 2004 he has volunteered in the international humanitarian effort to rebuild Iraq’s mental health care system. This work has taken him to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon to teach and consult with Iraqi health professionals and policy makers.

19 thoughts on “Recessions Do Not Reduce The Prison Population”

  1. And/or lead? Surely the correlation combined with the rock-solid causal story is enough to rule out “or”. The only question is how much “and”.

  2. I’m missing something here.

    Are there those who simultaneously believe that recessions increase crime and that they reduce prison populations? How would that work?

    1. Excellent point. I suspect there are people who invoke both stories in different conversations, not realizing how they contradict each other.

    2. I agree that it’s vanishingly unlikely that both could be true, but I could imagine factors caused by the recession that could readily explain both: for example, police forces and/or prison populations could be downsized due to state funding issues. Fewer criminals would be caught, despite there being more crime due to people desperate for money. On the other side, the number of prisoners being paroled or freed during the recession would be greater than the number of people sentenced to prison (also during the recession).

      It doesn’t strike me as likely in the slightest, and it’s the sort of explanation that could be readily proven or disproven (my guess is with “disproven”) by looking at state and local budgets. But I don’t think it’s impossible that both could be true at the same time.

  3. Thanks for the link. One thing I would say about:

    “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.”

    Is that (a) the lousy economy variable isn’t binary; we’ve had the worst recession since the Great Depression, outmatching the last several in terms of severity and length and (b) the unique nature of the collapse of the housing bubble (and subsequent wave of both foreclosures and lack of any real estate activity) is putting pressure on state budgets in a way that has no analogue in the last 30 years.

  4. Hi Mike,

    Not a good example for your argument: Incarceration went up sharply during the Great Depression. You are left then saying that when economic times are bad (the past 5 recessions) prison population rises, and when they are really really bad (The Great Depression) it also rises, but when an economic downturn is in some sweet spot between those two extremes (the Great Recession) the prison population shrinks as a result.

    What economic theory would support that pattern of explanation, particularly predicted in advance rather than as a post hoc account?

    1. Sure. I really don’t think there’s a simple, hydrologic-like casual model explanation when it comes to incarceration rates, especially one that is going to take us back to the much different governing project of the Great Depression-era.

      I’m just pushing back against the idea that since the 2001 recession had increasing incarceration population, we should assume that the Great Recession is unlikely to have changed the dynamics. There really are state-level budget gaps that could easily cause a re-examination of incarceration policy, and that this gap hasn’t existed in the past 30 years. I think it’s beyond a curiosity, as it has consequences for whether a decline in the prison population will continue once states are in the black.

      (It would be interesting to see how states dealt with their budgets and prisons in the Great Depression. Government spending was so much smaller as a percentage of GDP back then, with fewer big state-level commitments. I wonder how that looked on the ground.)

      1. Mike,

        Obviously, we all run into the problem of arguing historical counter-factuals, so there is inherent guesswork in explaining shifts in public policy. But my guesswork is the same as Kevin Drum’s — take away the huge drop in crime and I think the US would have gone right on building prisons as we have in every other economic downturn

        I did appreciate, not incidentally, that in your piece you quoted dissenting voices on the theory, that’s why I used the word “balanced”. Like I said I don’t buy basic argument, but you have clearly kicked off a worthwhile debate.

  5. Well, speaking only from the perspective of California, the recession very much did contribute to the reduction in the prison population. The Legislature had already authorized a prison-building program to reduce overcrowding and get right with the courts. Jerry Brown took office and canceled it to help cut the budget.

    Hitting the limits of the public’s ability pay for the prison-industrial complex — as much as any sudden onset of wisdom among politicians — is responsible for the recent change in philosophy.

    1. I am afraid that does not fit the facts, then or now. Brown is still resisting the federal order to reduce the state prison population, to which the legislature was trying to respond. If he was driven by budget concerns, he would immediately stop spending legal fees on fighting the injunction and comply with it by reducing the prison population, thereby saving even more.

      1. The state has cut the prison population quite a lot since Jerry Brown took office, despite his recent attempts at stonewalling the court order to finish the job.

  6. 1. Ideally, you could chart the general 30-year incarceration trend and then see if deviations from that trend — higher or lower — matched changes in the economy. You’d have to define some lag time, and there’s also the problem that if it takes a while for economic effects to transfer to the CJS, shorter recessions might not have any effect at all.

    2. The standard Marxist prediction would be that in economic good times, i.e., periods of low unemployment, incarceration will decrease as the ruling class sends more workers into the labor force, putting downward pressure on wages.

    1. I am not expert on Marxist theory (other than Groucho et al) but I have spent a lot of time in and around prisons. When the economy is good and parole boards believe than jobs are possible for released prisoners, they are more inclined to release them. There are indeed even programs that find prisoners jobs before they leave, but these are only operable when economic times are good and employers really want labor. Those sorts of factors would lead you, again, to be skeptical of the idea that a bad economy shrinks the prison population.

  7. In Oregon, the converging pincers consist of a) the public pension system where the big winners are now starting to retire in droves (the system has been “reformed” several times since the original structure went berserk in the 70s, as a short sided Lege bought labor piece by selling the future Legislators down the proverbial crick without paddles) and b) a draconian initiative, Measure 11, that took whatever power judges had left and gave it to prosecutors. Between those two pincers are the schools, the elderly and everything else that is getting chopped up to mincemeat.

    I keep fantasizing about writing an article called “Sentencing as if budgets mattered,” which would point out that, since Measure 11, we’ve basically frozen every opportunity for thought out of the incarceration pipeline; the only players with all the leverage are the cop and the DA; the grossly underfunded public defender offices are not even full sized speed bumps, the judges (elected) have little incentive and even less ability to call a halt to the preschool-to-prison pipeline, and the Lege can’t quite bring itself to look the voters in the eye and say that we’ve gotta stop locking people up for so long and then wondering why they can’t reintegrate successfully.

    Essentially, every DA in Oregon has a platinum charge card that they don’t have to pay the bill for; not surprisingly, they don’t even bother to think about what they’ve charged up, much less what their fellow DAs have charged up; indeed, they’re competeting to see which one can ring up the biggest bill, and it’s a competition where the winner wins but everyone else’s losses are covered too — the crowd pays for all the contestants’ tries.

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