The Incarceration Tipping Point

The three-decade-plus growth of incarceration in the U.S. at one point seemed an unstoppable public policy juggernaut, insensitive to political and economic changes. Until it wasn’t: The number of people in prison finally began dropping under President Obama and appears likely to continue doing so.

One key determinant of the size of the prison population is the number of admissions each year. I have presented a longer series of data on the prison admission rate before; here I will just focus on the past decade of data to better highlight something unusual about recent history. In interpreting the data, note that the government defines admissions as sentences exceeding one year, so every admission represents a unique individual.

Incarceration Tipping Point

The shape of the curve is singular. Initially the rate continues its decades-long ascent. But in 2006 it hits an invisible ceiling and begins plummeting with increasing speed. This is an unusual finding in public policy analysis. Particularly at the national level, it usually takes awhile for major policy changes to be consolidated. But in this case, we have experienced an unambiguous U-turn. Further, while the 2007 and 2008 drops in the rate of prison admission are roughly equal in size, from that point forward the drop each year exceeds that of the prior year. The drop in 2012 was about double that of 2010, four times that of 2009 and six times that of 2008.

I could tell a story about the causes of this policy turnabout and I am sure many other people could also (get the lead out, Kevin…). But all I want to do here is highlight the striking nature of the change: Outside of tulip bulb investing and the like, you rarely see national policy go so vigorously in one direction and then abruptly travel with accelerating speed in the opposite direction.

p.s. Some people have cited my prior posts on the prison admission rate change as “Humphreys’ research”, so let me clarify that I do not deserve credit for doing anything groundbreaking here. I am simply taking two numbers produced annually by your federal government (the number of prison admissions and the size of the general population) and dividing one by the other. In the chart above I multiplied the result by 100,000 as this is the standard incarceration rate used by criminologists.

Lead and crime: a hole in the theory

Kevin Drum, whose “Criminal Element” essay linking violence rates to lead exposure has been (as it deserves to be) extraordinarily influential, links to a BBC story in which a more-than-usually-dim criminologist explains that he disbelieves in the lead-crime link because all biological explanations of crime are outside “the mainstream” (presumably meaning “the mainstream of criminological research”). Kevin is right to say that the multiple levels of evidence for the lead-crime link (brain-imaging work, case-control studies at the individual level, studies of crime changes in neighborhoods that suffered greater and lesser increases in lead exposure after WWII and decreases in lead exposure after the mid-1970s, and cross-national studies) deserve more than a casual blow-off. It’s not, after all, as if “mainstream” criminology had a bunch of well-worked out causal theories with proven predictive power.

Like Kevin, I’ve been frustated that the evidence about lead hasn’t led to more action, if only some serious experimental work removing lead from randomly selected buildings or neighborhoods and then doing developmental measurements on the childen in the chosen areas compared to children in control areas. And I was puzzled when I heard that the hyper-sensible Phil Cook of Duke was among the skeptics.

Alas, Phil seems to have good reason to raise questions, especially about the ultra-strong claims sometimes heard about the percentage of the crime drop since 1994 attributable to changes in lead exposure. (Note that in a system with multiple positive feedbacks, the change-attribution factors needn’t sum to unity, so the claim that “the change in X accounts for 90% of the change in Y” is dubious on its face.)

Cook writes:

My skepticism about the “lead removal” explanation for the crime drop stems from the same source as my skepticism about the Donohue-Levitt explanation in terms of abortion legalization. They have an exact parallel to the previous explanations for the surge in violence of the late ‘80s by John DiIulio and others. The focus in both cases is the character of the kids – the belief that during the 80s the teens were getting “worse,” and during the 90s they were getting “better.” Even a fairly casual glance at the data demonstrates that whatever the cause of the crime surge, and then the crime drop, it was not associated with particular cohorts. It was an environmental effect – 10 cohorts were swept up in the crime surge simultaneously, and the drop has the same correlated pattern.

There is a natural inclination to assume that the reason the murder rate is increasing is because there are more murderers, and the reason we have fewer is that there are fewer murderers. It’s not that I rule out such explanations – I’m open to the idea of lead removal and abortion legalization – it’s just that I don’t think it explains the actual pattern of the youth violence epidemic, either up or down. More generally, my instinct is to look to the social and economic environment to explain large shifts in population outcomes.

Here’s Cook’s paper with John Laub.

Now, since youth violence surely has impacts on adult violence, finding that all the cohorts decreased their violence at the same time doesn’t quite rule out the idea that the younger cohorts were largely driving the train. And those brain-imaging, case-control, neighborhood, and cross-national results are still out there. But Cook’s objection remains a powerful one: the theory predicts that we should have seen the crime declines specifically in the birth cohorts exposed to less lead, and that’s not what we saw in fact.

I’d still like to see some experimental work to figure out how much additional lead removal would turn out to be cost-justified (with crime-reduction benefits a significant, but but not the dominant, part of the benefit story), but the simple story “Crime declined because lead declined” now has a major hole in it. That’s too bad, because attempts to find the relevant social and economic causes haven’t gotten very far. To my mind, the crime boom that started in the late 1950s or early 1960s and the crime bust that started in the mid- 1990s (and other large-scale, decades-long swings up and down in crime rates elsewhere) remain largely unexplained in retrospect, as they were entirely unpredicted in prospect.

Footnote And that, of course, is the difference between science and policy analysis on the one hand and mere advocacy on the other. Of course scientists and analysts are influenced by their values and prejudices. I don’t pretend that Jessica Reyes’s work didn’t make me happy or that Cook’s response doesn’t make me sad. The lead-crime story fits all my political prejudices, as well as my taste for simple and surprising explanations with clear policy implications. And I’ve been a loud advocate for it. But I don’t want to believe it if it isn’t true.

I Wasn’t There, But Let Me Tell You Exactly What Happened

In response to my lament regarding how some people think watching movies makes them an expert in a public policy area, Kevin Drum points out a broader problem with how people judge what they do and don’t know:

Everyone with the manual dexterity to hoist a beer can regale you with confident answers to all the ills of society, while in the very next breath insisting that you don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to subject X. That’s a lot more complicated than you think.

Subject X, of course, is something they happen to know a lot about, probably because they work in the field. But it doesn’t matter. The fact that they’ve learned to be cautious about the one field they know the most about doesn’t stop them from assuming that every other field is pretty simple and tractable.

It would be absurd to deny this sad phenomenon. Kevin is describing how possession of deep knowledge in some areas doesn’t generalize into an assumption that there is also relevant deep knowledge in areas in which we are not specialists. During some of the hottest cultural debates of recent years, I have been thinking about this same lack of generalization from the other direction: Why don’t we assume we are ignorant in unfamiliar areas when we have the experience of ignorance in familiar ones? I am thinking in particular of our quotidian experience of misunderstanding or misremembering our interactions with other people. Continue Reading…

Does the Tea Party Want to Win Elections?

Kevin Drum ponders what he calls a “timid” National Review article about the Tea Party by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru. Drum agrees with L&P’s diagnosis that the Tea Party needs to appreciate the value of winning national elections if it wants to shape national policy, but raises this challenge:

OK, but how will conservatives win more elections? L&P explicitly disavow the notion of the party turning left, suggesting only that they’re skeptical of “the idea that moving in the opposite direction will in itself pay political dividends.” But if they have no concrete suggestions—either in policy or tone or messaging or something—then this is just mush.

Well, maybe. But there is an alternative explanation. L&P are probably more in touch than is Drum (or me) with the pulse of Tea Party at the moment. L&P may have concluded that the alienation, rage and self-indulgence in that corner of the world are such that persuading Tea Partiers that elections matter is indeed a significant task of its own, much as it was with some leftist factions in the 1960s and 1970s. You can’t tell people how to do something that they don’t want to do in the first place. If you feel that the country is lost, that your values have been rejected and the entire system is corrupt, politics can become simply an outlet for rage. That may be the ledge the Tea Party is on, post-government-shut-down humiliation.

This same observation is germane to Andrew Sullivan’s otherwise compelling analysis of Chris Christie’s electability. It assumes that the Tea Party cares about winning elections, and therefore will embrace the big guy from Jersey. It used to be that the rightmost wing of the Republican Party always lined up for the establishment choice in the end, but maybe this time around they will simply be in the mood to express their fury via a Quixotic Cruzade for one of their own.

Tolerance for Snooping Among Elites and Masses

Kevin Drum argues that President Obama’s views on the government’s right to snoop have a long provenance:

[Obama] falls squarely into the mainstream of the elite, bipartisan, Beltway consensus on this stuff. He always has, just like every president before him. This isn’t the fourth term of the George Bush presidency, as so many people like to put it, but more like the 16th term of the Eisenhower presidency.

Yet while calling tolerance of snooping an elite viewpoint, he is not sure the hoi polloi are much different:

Will the public finally rebel after learning about the latest way their government is keeping tabs on them? I doubt it. As near as I can tell, most of the public is willing to sell their innermost secrets for a free iTunes coupon.

Getting the (remaining) lead out

Shorter Kevin Drum:

1. Lead is remarkably nasty stuff. In minuscule quantities (measured in the single digits of micrograms per decliter of blood) it damages both IQ and the capacity for self-command.

2. The rise of lead exposure from gasoline, and its subsequent decline, accounts for a large share of the crime boom of 1960-90 and the crime decline that started in 1994.

3. Children are still being exposed to lead from two major sources: residual lead in soil, and lead paint in homes, especially window-frames.

4. Substantially eliminating those sources of exposure would require a one-time expenditure of about $400 billion. (That sounds like a lot of money, until you look at Treasury bond rates and translate it to $12 billion a year.)

5. The return on that investment would be at least in the high tens of billions of dollars per year.

Kevin’s piece, the cover story in the current Mother Jones, is a model of science/policy journalism. He carefully chases down both the biology and the social science supporting the claims about the effects of lead, identifies the main remaining sources, and documents the abatement processes, with cost estimates. (The quantification of benefits is mostly hand-waving; neither the outcome predictions nor the valuations are convincing. But it’s more than adequate to show that the benefit-cost analysis would come out hugely positive.)

It remains to be seen whether a crime-control and educational initiative that doesn’t fit the intellectual categories or feed the budgets of the criminal-justice and educational systems can obtain any political purchase. The answer so far seems to be no.

Paul Ryan, the Fourteenth Amendment, and “personhood”

With more and more smart, honest conservatives getting fed up and switching sides, the remaining smart, honest conservatives are especially precious for those of us who don’t want to talk only to members of the Blue team. So Ramesh Ponnuru is a scarce resource, and I wouldn’t criticize him if I didn’t have to.

But I’m utterly puzzled by Ramesh’s criticism of Amy Odell and his followup criticism of Kevin Drum over the proposed Sanctity of Life Act, a Congressional “personhood” bill sponsored by a 55 extremists, including Paul Ryan.

Ramesh’s position is that the bill wouldn’t criminalize abortion. He accuses Kevin, who disagrees, of bad lawyering.

Well, I’m not a lawyer at all, but (as Sam Ervin once said) I understand the English language; it’s my mother tongue.

The full text of the bill is at the jump. The substance of it is that Congress, acting explicitly under its power “to enforce, by appropriate legislation,” the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, declares that every fertilized egg is a person, with all the legal rights of a person, including the “right to life.”

Now, what does the rest of the Fourteenth Amendment say? Why, it says, among other things, that “no state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

So, for example, a law forbidding the murder of white people only, leaving blacks unprotected, would be void as denying equal protection.

Assume for the moment that the law were to pass both Houses, that President Romney were to sign it, and that the Supreme Court’s Right-to-Life caucus were to get a fifth vote to hold that the law was constitutional.

Then no state could criminalize the killing of the “post-born” without also criminalizing the killing of the “pre-born,” any more than it could criminalize the murder of whites while permitting that of blacks. (That’s what makes “Dred Scott” a RTL dog-whistle, valid even in Confederate territory.)

Thus, unless a state wanted to declare open season on all of its citizens, it would have to criminalize abortion, and do so without any exceptions whatever: not rape, not the life of the mother, not nothing. I suppose you could run an IVF clinic, but you’d have to keep every fertilized egg alive indefinitely; it would be a person in law, and disposing of it would be murder.

So when the bill goes on to provide that “the Congress, each State, the District of Columbia, and all United States territories have the authority to protect the lives of all human beings residing in its respective jurisdictions,” “authority” really means “obligation.” Buzzfeed backed off on the original claim, but it seems to me they were wrong to do so.

So yes: Mitt Romney, who said in an unguarded moment that he’d be “delighted” to sign a bill banning “all abortion,” has chosen as his running-mate a Congressman who co-sponsored a bill to do precisely that.

Footnote Note that the short title of the bill betrays its theocratic roots. Congress has extensive powers, but even under the most generous interpretation of the Necessary and Proper clause they don’t extend to defining or protecting sanctity.

Continue Reading…

Marijuana policy and international law

Commenting on Matt Yglesias’s essay about how cheap pot would be post-legalization, my old friend Kevin Drum notes that marijuana prohibition is built into the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and its successor international drug control treaties. Within the constraints of those treaties, what Kevin calls “decriminalization and wink-wink nudge-nudge lack of enforcement” are indeed all we could have at a national level.

But that doesn’t mean taxation-and-regulation needs to be completely off the table.

First, the treaties don’t bind the fifty states. The treaties explicitly recognize that the obligations they impose on the signatories are limited by those signatories’ own domestic constitutional arrangements, and it’s settled constitutional law that the federal government may not require a state to criminalize something, or force a state to help carry out federal law.

For example, if the Michigan proposal to simply repeal the state’s marijuana laws – parallel to what New York did with respect to alcohol in 1923 – had passed, Michigan would have been entirely within its constitutional powers, and no international law would have been violated.

The constitutional situation would become murkier if a state did something more complex: if it created a tax-and-regulation system, or even a system of distribution through state stores. When state law directly conflicts with federal law, the Supremacy Clause means that federal law wins. I think that means the federal courts would shut down a state-store system. In addition, the federal government might be able to effectively disable a state’s tax-and-regulation system by using injunctions or arrests to make it impossible for marijuana growers and dealers to comply with state laws. (As Jon Caulkins points out, that would give the feds a hard set of choices: they could prevent controlled legalization, but the result might be uncontrolled legalization.)

If a state were to tax and regulate, and the feds were to mind their own business (i.e., prevent interstate commerce but not mess with strictly intra-state production, sale, and use) then we’d have something much more like real legalization than, for example, the Dutch system is.

In addition, while even five years ago the treaties looked immutable, that’s much less true now. The U.S. could withdraw from the Single Convention and re-acceed to it with a “reservation” about marijuana. That would leave the other parties to the treaty with the option of accepting the reservation or kicking the U.S. out of the treaty system entirely. Or the U.S. could propose amendments to the treaties; we’d have company, though whether enough company to actually secure the 2/3 required for an amendment is doubtful.

So the treaties do create barriers to true legalization, but those barriers aren’t impassable.

Note this is all said without prejudice to the question whether legalization in one form or another would be a good idea. My own view is that some sort of legal availability for adults would, on balance, out-perform the current system. I also think that we’re likely to see national legalization within a couple of decades.

But the post-prohibition policy is likely to look more or less like current alcohol policy – modest taxes and weak regulations, with massive marketing of cheap products leading to widespread drug abuse – rather than the tighter system of high taxes and strong marketing controls I’d prefer.

In any case, I doubt the treaties will play much of a role in shaping the results.

Footnote And yes, this is all in the book, Ch. 10, pp. 145-150, under the question headings “Would marijuana legalization violate international conventions?” “Does Dutch policy violate these international conventions?” “What are the consequences for violating international conventions?” and “Could these international treaties be changed?”