Fiscal conservatism and mass incarceration

Newt Gingrich thinks that over-incarceration is wasteful government spending. Not the best reason to let people out of cells, but it has some political zing in the current environment.

I’ve been wondering when someone on the right would notice that excessive incarceration falls into the category “Wasteful Government Spending.” Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan have now made that argument. It’s by far the least important reason to shrink our outlandishly oversized prison population, but not by any means the least potent politically.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

16 thoughts on “Fiscal conservatism and mass incarceration”

  1. You were wondering when a conservative would get around to noticing this? I guess you must not think Milton Friedman was a conservative…

    And I can think of several considerably less important reasons to shrink our outlandishly oversized prison population. Such as complaints about racial disparities in incarceration, which are driven by racial discrepancies in crime rates.

  2. The racial discrepancies are not in crime rates so much as they are in arrest rates. "Blacks have been arrested nationwide on drug charges at higher rates than whites for nearly three decades, even though they engage in drug offenses at comparable rates, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today [March 2, 2009]. Using data obtained from the FBI, the report reveals the extent and persistence of racial disparities in US drug-law enforcement. The data also show that most drug arrests are for nothing more serious than possession. The 20-page report, 'Decades of Disparity: Drug Arrests and Race in the United States,' says that adult African Americans were arrested on drug charges at rates that were 2.8 to 5.5 times as high as those of white adults in every year from 1980 through 2007, the last year for which complete data were available. About one in three of the more than 25.4 million adult drug arrestees during that period was African American."

    According to a new book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," by Michelle Alexander, "mass incarceration in the United States has, in fact, emerged as a comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow."

  3. Unless minorities are lying about being victimized by minorities in victimization surveys, the racial discrepancies certainly ARE in the crime rates. Which is quite apart from whether the 'crimes' in question OUGHT to be crimes; I strongly favor an end to the war on drugs, but not because minorities are violating this stupid law at a higher rate than whites, because it's a stupid law.

  4. I expect Gingrich will maintain this view for about as long as he supported cap and trade, i.e. right up until the point when he sees a chance to gain attention/rally the base by denouncing Democrats as radical socialists for endorsing his own former view.

  5. This isn't new. Pat Nolan has been advocating (through Prison Fellowship) for de-carceration for years. It is certainly gaining momentum within conservative circles now though. Check out the cuts to the correctional system that newly elected Republican Gov. Kasich (Ohio)is proposing. He responded to the opposition he's receiving from the correctional system there by basically calling them a bunch of whiners. I expect with the new crowd of incoming republican governors you are going to see much more of this (which hopefully includes us here in PA too).

  6. Brett,

    I realize I shouldn't feed the troll, but you do realize that your second post is almost a textbook-perfect exemplar of conservative anti-fact argumentation?

    Henry presented a specific fact, with a source. You responded by denying his fact, claiming a fact that you don't cite, and implying (by shouting) that he's an idiot for believing his sources instead of your vague generalizations.

    Thanks ever so for improving the discourse!

  7. Kevin,

    Brett is right on with his observation about victimization data confirming that racial disparities are predominately explained by differential crime rates. Early on, Blumstein examined the issue of racial disproportionality in prison populations by using arrest data and found that about 80% of the racial disparity in prison was explained by differential arrest rates. Of course the immediate criticism was exactly the argument that Henry made, that differential arrest rates do not necessarily reflect differential criminal participation. So Blumstein's research was followed by two seminal, often cited studies which made use of victimization data to examine racial disproportionality (Hindelang, 1978; Langan, 1985). Both studies confirmed, using victimization data, that racial differences in arrest rates and in imprisonment rates were largely explained by differential involvement in criminal activity on the part of racial minorities.

    Wanna retract that statement about conservative anti-fact argumentation?

  8. No–because my comment said nothing at all about the factuality or falsity of Brett's statement, just about the argumentation style. If one wishes to have a discussion, one does not respond to a cited fact by making an unsubstantiated claim and insulting the first speaker.

  9. 1. George Schultz (Reagan's Secretary of State) opposed drug prohibition.

    2. (Kevin): "…your second post is almost a textbook-perfect exemplar of conservative anti-fact argumentation…"

    (Kevin): "…my comment said nothing at all about the factuality or falsity of Brett’s statement…"

    Hmmm…

  10. Malcolm,

    1. A lot of people all over the American political spectrum have found prohibition to be a bad idea–the most prominent conservative probably being William Buckley.

    2. Yeah, the phrase "anti-fact" does make it harder to see my point, and it was counterproductive. I do consider "your fact is wrong and mine is right" to be "anti-fact" even if the speaker is correct, if the speaker writes with a clear, barely subtextual subtext of "I can't be arsed to provide enough information to demonstrate it, because you're just supposed to recognize that I Know Things Because I'm Serious". That's the pattern that I felt, and feel, Brett was epitomizing, and I do feel it's anti-fact.

  11. How about, "I can't be arsed to provide enough information to demonstrate it, because I've got a two year old, and an 87 year old mother visiting, and I've got to keep the former from accidentally breaking the latter."?

    Now, the fact that you can explain almost all the difference in incarceration rates by disparities in commission of crime, is not exactly news. Heck, *I* was just out of high school when that disparity was satisfactorily explained, and I'm no spring chicken. In fact, I'd say Human Rights Watch ought to be ashamed for perpetuating, I expect deliberately, a myth. A myth that's been known to be a myth for going on three decades now. Since you fell victim to this, you might want to take it up with them.

    One does get just a bit peeved the umpteenth time you get hit with the same tired old nonsense. I will, however, concede that in an ideal world, one where little Victor wasn't unscrewing the legs of mom's walker, I should have provided the info Bux so kindly supplied.

  12. At this particular point in time, anti-incarceration rhetoric on the right might also be gaining from the demonization of public-employee unions, of which corrections is a highly visible chunk. (We'll see how this fares against the private-prison lobby; probably pretty well, since private prisons can be called something else fairly easily.)

    Meanwhile, isn't the participation disparity strongly dependent on the kind of crime in question? (My only recollection, for this, I admit, is an old study on drug use by pregnant women, where anonymized urine tests showed essentially no racial disparity, but reporting to the police — since drug use was a reportable crime for the health workers who saw the women — differed by something like 5:1.)

  13. Valid points on both accounts Paul. In my opinion, some "demonization" of public-employee unions is certainly warranted. Given all of the political momentum on both sides of the political spectrum to reduce mass incarceration, if one thing will prevent movement in this direction it will be unions who fight to keep prisons open for jobs. Shouldn't we be concerned that prisons are remaining open and being filled disproportionately by minorities (setting aside the earlier established fact that disproportionate minority confinement is predominately a result of disproportionate criminal participation) in order to keep jobs for a bunch of white people in rural communities?

    As far the criminal participation disparity depending on the type of crime, you are right that there is evidence of differences across crime types. The study by Al Blumstein that I previously mentioned found that while nearly 80% of overall racial disparity in the prison population was attributable to differential arrest rates, only about 50% of racial disparity in the prison population for drug offenses was attributable to differential arrest rates. But this gets back to the problem of relying on arrest as a proxy for criminal participation. I don't know that anyone has examined whether minorities are disproportionately arrest for drug offenses relative to their participation in drug offenses. And keep in mind that when we're talking about drug offenses going to state prison we are predominately talking about drug distribution offenses. We have decent measures of drug use, but we do not have decent measures of the prevalence of drug distribution crimes (Mark, am I right about that??). So to compare reported crimes to arrests for drug distribution offenses would paint an inaccurate picture in my opinion. I may be wrong, but I don't believe the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) even reports on the number of reported crimes for drug offenses due to how inaccurate of a measure it would be; the UCR only reports on drug arrests. So we do know that blacks are disproportionately likely to get a prison sentence comparative to their ratio of arrests for drug offenses, but I don't believe we can say much about whether blacks are disproportionately arrested comparative to their participation in drug crimes.

  14. (Paul): "At this particular point in time, anti-incarceration rhetoric on the right might also be gaining from the demonization of public-employee unions, of which corrections is a highly visible chunk…"

    The "left/right" political classification scheme destroys information. To the extent that people use the terms consistently, the scheme refers to the preference for direct government intervention in resource allocation issues versus a preference for market-directed processes, seems to me. The government of a locality is the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition, after Weber). A law is a threat by a government to kidnap (arrest), assault (subdue), and forcibly infect with HIV (imprison) someone, under some specified circumstances. "Anti-incarceration rhetoric" follows naturally from a preference for markets over legal processes in deciding resource allocation questions. Compare the libertarian position to the progressive position on minimum wage laws and employment anti-discrimination laws.

    (Paul): "Meanwhile, isn’t the participation disparity strongly dependent on the kind of crime in question? (My only recollection, for this, I admit, is an old study on drug use by pregnant women, where anonymized urine tests showed essentially no racial disparity, but reporting to the police — since drug use was a reportable crime for the health workers who saw the women — differed by something like 5:1.)"

    Are you, above, taking both sides of the "participation disparity" question? Does the rate of participation depend on the type of crime, or is it an artifact of reporting?

    One way to get at this, seems to me, is by victimization studies (as Brett suggests). I have not tried this, but you could, for example, take total murders, unsolved murders, and solved murders by race of perpetrator. Then project what the total murder rate would be if all racial groups committed murder at the rate of the highest and lowest rates, by race, for solved murders. Compare to total (solved + unsolved) murder rate.

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