Is Continued De-Incarceration Guaranteed?

jailAfter rising inexorably for more than three decades, the U.S. prison population has declined three years in a row. Few people see this as anything other than an extremely positive development. But will it last? Some prison policy watchers are more optimistic than others.

Mike Konczal is one of many smart people who has raised the worry that as The Great Recession disappears into the rear-view mirror, states will return to fiscal health and consequently lose interest in slashing prison budgets.

I don’t share Konczal’s anxiety, for two reasons. First, because the general pattern in U.S. history is for prison populations to grow rather than shrink during economic downturns, I am not convinced that The Great Recession was very important to the reversal of the 30+ year mass incarceration trend. Second, states like South Dakota whose public finances are already in rude health are nonetheless taking major steps to reduce incarceration.

A different case for pessimism, among some liberals at least, is that now that some prisons are privatized, the powerhouse lobbyists of that industry will prevent further de-incarceration. Some people on the political right are too reflexively fearful of government and too trusting of the private sector. Prison policy is a case where the opposite set of biases afflicts some analysts on the left. Over 90% of U.S. inmates are in public prisons. The political power of public sector unions on incarceration-related issues thus dwarfs that of the small private sector. If the private prison operators and public sector prison employees unions allied in the cause of preventing de-incarceration, it could be a significant political problem, but that’s not very likely because they hate each others’ guts.

Turning to the case for optimism, Charles Lane persuasively cites the impact of our still-falling crime rate:

Less crime leads to declining incarceration in two ways. First, and most obvious, there are fewer law-breakers to lock up. Second, safer streets reduce the public’s demand for tough “law and order” policies – like the stiff mandatory minimum sentences that helped drive the U.S. rate of incarceration up in the 80s and 90s.

Kevin Drum is even more upbeat based on his analysis of lead exposure research. He argues that the generation that grew up in the leaded gasoline era was uniquely violent. As they age out and are replaced by non-exposed generations, Kevin expects crime and incarceration rates to continue their fall.

You don’t have to accept the lead explanation to make an equally positive projection about the future. Prisoners tend to have long criminal histories that began when they were teenagers. As a result, the current size of the prison population reflects the crime rate of a decade or two ago better than it does that of the present moment. Ten years from now, the prison population will better reflect the low crime rate we have been enjoying in recent years, which translates into many fewer people serving hard time.

Recessions Do Not Reduce The Prison Population

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.

The Strangely Underreported Decline in the Incarceration Rate

I hereby submit my nomination for the most underreported public policy story of the past year: The continuing decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars or on probation/parole. Both the change itself and low level of attention it has garnered are worthy of reflection.

At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the incarceration rate in the United States had been rising every single year since the mid 1970s. The relentless growth in the proportion of Americans behind bars had persisted through good economic times and bad, Republican and Democratic Presidents, and countless changes in state and local politics around the country.

If a public policy trend with that much momentum had even slowed significantly, it would have been merited attention, but something far more remarkable occurred: The incarceration rate and the number of people under correctional supervision (i.e., including people on probation/parole) declined for three years in a row. At the end of 2011, the proportion of people under correctional supervision returned to a level not seen since the end of the Clinton Administration.

You’d think this would be big news, but it’s gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, if you google on news articles and op-eds about incarceration that have appeared during the Obama Administration, you will find precious few that mention or even seem aware of the change. John Tierney dropped some breadcrumbs in his recent NYT article, which I hope means he will delve into the decline in incarceration as his series of articles on criminal justice progresses. There’s a great deal a good journalist could illuminate for the public, for example which policies and politics are producing the change and how it plays out on the ground.

Why hasn’t the shrinkage of the correctional population received more attention already? Three forces are likely at play. Continue Reading…