Understanding and Reducing Federal Prison Overcrowding

The federal prison system faces serious challenges, but confusing it with the entire US prison system obscures how they can be addressed

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General has released a report highlighting challenges within the federal prison system. The IG correctly identifies overcrowding as a root cause of numerous other problems, including inhumane conditions for prisoners, risk to correctional officers and budgetary burden.

Unfortunately, some of the media coverage and blog commentary about the report made the mistake of equating the federal prison population with the “US prison population”. This conflation leads to a misunderstanding both of the unique nature of the problem in federal prisons and the range of the solutions, because the federal prison system is a small, atypical part of the U.S. prison system.

If you don’t know that the federal prison system is different than the (almost entirely state-run) U.S. prison system, you would misunderstand the IG report to mean that the US prison population is relentlessly rising and is increasingly composed of drug offenders. In fact, the number of people in US prisons has been dropping since 2010 and the proportion of inmates serving time for drug offenses hasn’t been so low since the 1980s.

This realization redirects attention in a productive way by raising a question: What is different about federal prisons that makes them out of step with the broader national de-incarceration trend? They differ in many ways of course, but the most critical for overcrowding is that Congress abolished parole in the federal system in 1984. Nearly three decades without the option of paroling rehabilitated inmates virtually assures that a prison system will become overcrowded.

If Congress would move to reverse that policy, and the Bureau of Prisons would do a better job of implementing Attorney General Holder’s recently proposed expansion of compassionate release (which the IG report argues is not being well used) the federal prison system would quickly fall in line with the rest of the US prison system as a contracting rather than expanding enterprise.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. 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, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

33 thoughts on “Understanding and Reducing Federal Prison Overcrowding”

  1. ” What is different about federal prisons that makes them out of step with the broader national de-incarceration trend?”

    I’d venture to guess that it’s because you end up in prison for violating federal laws, and while states have had general police authority for a couple centuries now, and the range of things a state will lock you up for is generally static, the federal universe of laws that will put you behind bars is in a rapid expansion phase, due to both the courts and Congress no longer caring that the federal government wasn’t granted that sort of authority.

    So, with an ever growing number of reasons for locking people up, of course the number of people behind federal bars is going to be growing.

    1. According to experts, the ever-expanding number of federal laws is impossible to accurately count. Money quote:

      “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” said John Baker, a retired Louisiana State University law professor who has also tried counting the number of new federal crimes created in recent years. “That is not an exaggeration.”

    2. “…, and the range of things a state will lock you up for is generally static,…”

      That’s actually not true – there’s a case in Oklahoma where some people who hung up a banner are being charged with ‘terrorist hoax’.

      Now, this might have already been on the books, but the enforcement probably stepped up after 9/11.

      Another example – due to SCOTUS, in many states a large number of voters could now be charged with a number of crimes for attempting to vote.

  2. Keith: What is different about federal prisons that makes them out of step with the broader national de-incarceration trend?

    My hypothesis would be that it’s because of differences in how legislation happens. The federal legislative process has many, many veto points and a split legislature/executive more often than not (not to mention the filibuster in the Senate), so, while it is difficult to enact laws, it’s often even more difficult to amend or repeal them (especially if that means that legislators would have to admit to mistakes).

    State legislatures may or may not have a comparable number of veto points, but they are also less likely to have a party split across these veto points and are often functionally closer to a parliamentary democracy. Plus, they tend to get less news coverage (especially highly contentious news coverage) in the national media, so it’s much easier for them to pass, amend, or repeal laws [1]. Or, to put it differently, state legislatures have a better shot than Congress at being “soft on crime” and getting away with it.

    All that, and despite what may be a de-incarceration trend, state incarceration levels are still absurdly high. I suspect that the biggest part of the problem is that the US justice system tends to have such a strong focus on retribution. Throughout the US, people are still much more likely to be thrown into jail/prison and on average serve longer sentences than elsewhere in the developed world. Sentences without the possibility of parole are just one aspect of this phenomenon. The average American has no problem with harsh sentences and probably is more worried about criminals not doing time or getting out early.

    [1] Which at the state level also often leads to a higher incidence of corruption, but that’s a different topic.

    1. Thanks Katja. I agree with you that the media coverage difference is a huge part of why politicians at the state level can sometimes have far more latitude.

      I agree on the retribution aspect but only in context: How many Newtown-style massacres happen in Europe each year? We have many more victims of violence in our population per capita than most developed countries…it is not just that Americans as a people are inherently vengeful against criminals irrespective of criminal behavior. If we had as few homicides as Japan or Switzerland, I suspect the public would be less angry about and scared of criminals and less supportive of harsh punishment.

      1. “I agree on the retribution aspect but only in context: How many Newtown-style massacres happen in Europe each year? We have many more victims of violence in our population per capita than most developed countries…it is not just that Americans as a people are inherently vengeful against criminals irrespective of criminal behavior. If we had as few homicides as Japan or Switzerland, I suspect the public would be less angry about and scared of criminals and less supportive of harsh punishment.”

        Keith, are you actually thinking that Newton-style massacres happen far less in Europe each year due to the inherent violence or criminality of the population?

        I’d also add that two of the major factors driving US incarceration rates is racism, pure and simple, and the increasing need to crush a larger and larger proportion of the population, as inequality and social mobility decrease in the USA.

      2. “How many Newtown-style massacres happen in Europe each year?”

        More than you’d think, were you to naively assume that American news coverage was some kind of representative sample of events in the world.

        – Zug, Switzerland, September 27, 2001: a man murdered 15 members of a cantonal parliament.
        – Tours, France, October 29, 2001: four people were killed and 10 wounded when a French railway worker started killing people at a busy intersection in the city.
        – Nanterre, France, March 27, 2002: a man kills eight city councilors after a city council meeting.
        – Erfurt, Germany on April 26, 2002: a former student kills 18 at a secondary school.
        – Freising, Germany on February 19, 2002: Three people killed and one wounded.
        – Turin, Italy on October 15, 2002: Seven people were killed on a hillside overlooking the city.
        – Madrid, Spain, October 1, 2006: a man kills two employees and wounds another at a company that he was fired from.
        – Emsdetten, Germany, November 20, 2006: a former student murders 11 people at a high school.
        – Southern Finland, November 7, 2007: Seven students and the principal were killed at a high school.
        – Naples, Italy, September 18, 2008: Seven dead and two seriously wounded in a public meeting hall (not included in totals below because it may possibly have involved the mafia).
        – Kauhajoki, Finland, Sept. 23, 2008: 10 people were shot to death at a college.
        Winnenden, Germany, March 11, 2009: a 17-year-old former student killed 15 people, including nine students and three teachers.
        – Lyon, France, March 19, 2009: ten people injured after a man opened fire on a nursery school.
        – Athens, Greece, April 10, 2009: three people killed and two people injured by a student at a vocational college.
        – Rotterdam, Netherlands, April 11, 2009: three people killed and 1 injured at a crowded cafe.
        Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2009: one dead and 16 wounded in an attack on a Sikh Temple.
        – Espoo, Finland, Dec. 31, 2009: 4 killed while shopping at a mall on New Year’s Eve.
        – Cumbria, England, June 2, 2010: 12 people killed by a British taxi driver.

        1. So that’s 131 people killed over a decade in a population more than twice that of the U.S. What, exactly, did you think you were proving with this?

          1. Well, Keith DID ask, didn’t he? In fact, the rate of multiple victim shootings, (“Newtown-style massacres”) is about the same in the US and Europe or Canada. Naturally, such events in Europe don’t get much coverage in the US. For all I know, they don’t get as much coverage in Europe as the US press gives to American ones.

            But they’re still happening.

          2. Brett: For all I know, they don’t get as much coverage in Europe as the US press gives to American ones.

            That would be incorrect. They do get extensive coverage. Not necessarily at the EU level, but national media will cover them extensively for weeks, if not months.

            I’m not sure why you’re saying this now, though. Your original point (where you were responding to Keith) seemed to be that people in Europe see mass shootings just as often as Americans do. Now you seem to say the opposite?

      3. As Brett correctly points out, mass killings, sadly, aren’t all that uncommon in Europe, either (though lack of easy access to high powered weaponry may have limited the number of victims in many cases). What differs is the public reaction to it.

        Consider the case of Anders Breivik. Norway didn’t impose harsher sentences for homicides or other violent crimes as a result; in fact, it did the exact opposite, while Americans were still struggling with the idea that Norway doesn’t even have LWOP and didn’t see a problem with that. As a Norwegian politician who escaped the massacre said on CNN, “when one man could cause so much evil – think about how much love we can create together.”

        In Germany, the main members of the Sauerland Cell received sentences of 11-12 years for conspiracy to commit mass murder and in one case, attempted murder. All of the former members of the Red Army Faction who are still alive and who received life sentences have been long since pardoned or are out on parole. Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab serve life sentences without parole (to be clear, I’ve got bigger things to be worried about than the fate of two would-be mass murderers; I’m using them to show that there are differences in criminal justice systems even when dealing with mass murderers).

        More importantly, the American justice system focusing on retribution is not limited to violent crimes. Consider the felony/misdemeanor distinction. European countries that have a similar classification (not all of them do), draw the line much differently, and the consequences of being convicted of a felony (other than the prison sentence itself) are much less severe. In France, a felony is an offense that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years or more, not one year or more; in Germany, a felony is an offense that carries a minimum sentence of one year or more, not a maximum sentence of one year or more; in Austria and Switzerland, a felony is an offense that carries a maximum sentence of three years or more. Also, being convicted of a felony has not the same dire consequences as in the US; for the most part, the distinction primarily affects criminal procedure (e.g., what type of court you will be tried in or whether an attempted crime is automatically punishable). You generally don’t lose the right to vote, except temporarily and only for select offenses (such as corruption), and that only in some jurisdictions.

        There really is no silver bullet that other countries have in order to deal with incarceration rates, nor are their crime rates necessarily all that much lower (though violent crime rates generally are). In particular, recidivism rates of former prisoners remain a problem in many countries. So, what are they doing to have incarceration rates an order of magnitude lower than the US?

        I’ll use the German system as an example (which I’m most familiar with, as my godfather is a German prosecutor, but you’ll find that many other countries in Europe share many of the same general features). The basic idea, simply put, is that the German criminal justice system tries very hard not to put people in prison (there’s no jail/prison distinction, so I’m just using prison), unless it’s necessary because the offense is serious, repeated, and/or future recidivism is a concern. Locking people up is generally bad because (1) they lose their jobs, which is not going to help rehabilitation, and (2) they get to meet other criminals, possibly turning them into career criminals. Also, while German prisons on average may not be as bad as American maximum security facilities, they’re frequently less than ideal environments for rehabilitation. For example, many German prisons have a problem with hard drugs, and if a convict develops a hard drug dependency in prison, that may lead to secondary criminality down the road. In general, if you send someone to prison, there’s a good chance that they will be criminalized further. Excessive incarceration runs the risk of making crime worse, not better, by turning one-time criminals into repeat offenders.

        To begin with, German law generally keeps its catalog of crimes trimmed to a reasonable size [1]; much of what would be a misdemeanor or felony under US law is a civil infraction/administrative offense (or a matter of civil law) instead. Remember the case of Kiera Wilmot? Under German law, what she did would be a civil infraction (blowing up an explosive without endangering another person or valuable property) with a maximum fine of €1,000 (and probably a stern talking to). Nothing would go on her criminal record, regardless of prosecutorial discretion. (Note that making everything under the sun a felony or potential felony is not just a federal issue in the US; compared to other countries, the state aren’t necessarily much better.)

        I note that the relatively limited catalog of felonies and misdemeanors is likely also the indirect result of another aspect of the German criminal justice system: German prosecutors have very little prosecutorial discretion. Most offenses have to be prosecuted if the evidence shows that a crime has been committed and can only be dismissed with the consent of the court (technically, through what we call pretrial diversion), if culpability is low or under a few select other exceptions. German prosecutors are notoriously overworked as a result and having to deal with lots and lots of petty offenses would just cost taxpayer money or bring the criminal justice system to a grinding halt. (And mandatory prosecution is constitutional bedrock in Germany; everybody being equal before the law traditionally extends to whether or not they’re being prosecuted for a crime.)

        When you’re charged with a crime in Germany, you’re generally not arrested. Being arrested before having been convicted of a crime is the rare exception, not the rule. Detaining a person is a serious infringement of their fundamental rights and may only be ordered in limited circumstances: Namely, if defendants are flight risks, if there’s evidence that they may engage in obstruction of justice (e.g., intimidation of witnesses or destruction of evidence), or because they had previously committed serious crimes and imprisonment is necessary to stop them from reoffending. In fact, a few years ago a German prosecutor and a judge were put on trial themselves for conspiring to have suspects arrested without justification (to be clear, the alleged behavior was an intentional and flagrant violation of criminal procedure, not a mistake or screw-up; the alleged purpose of the arrest was to intimidate the suspects by arresting them in front of coworkers and friends, even though the prosecutor didn’t even have a strong enough case yet to bring charges).

        The vast majority of offenses are minor and are handled via pretrial diversion (technically, they are being dismissed in exchange for paying restitution, donating to a charity, community service, etc.). This not only will keep the defendants out of prison, but also keep their criminal records clean.

        Many simple cases are then handled via so-called penal orders, which are basically a form of nolo contendere procedure; if the case is obvious, and the offense isn’t serious, the prosecution can request a penal order from the court; the court then sends the penal order to the defendant, informing them that unless they contest it, they accept the sentence imposed therein (this is used extensively for traffic offenses). If the defendant objects, the court proceeds with a regular trial. However, penal orders cannot impose prison terms unless suspended, and a suspended sentence only if the defendant is represented by an attorney. Because penal orders save the court and the prosecution time and save the defendant legal costs, they’re fairly popular for simple cases, but also pretty much preclude prison sentences.

        If it actually comes to the offense being tried in open court, the law has a strong bias towards fines and/or probation. German criminal procedure law explicitly discourages prison sentences shorter than six months; instead, an equivalent fine is to be imposed (e.g., three months’ income instead of a three month sentence) unless exceptional circumstances demand a prison sentence. Such fines generally have a comparable deterrent effect (and where they don’t, the courts can impose a prison sentence instead) and, again, keep the offender out of prison.

        If a sentence of one year or less is awarded and if there is no reason to expect that the defendant will reoffend, sentences are routinely suspended (short sentences are still the most common ones, due to repeat offenders and such).

        In practice, this works out as follows: In 2011, German courts convicted 807,800 defendants. Of those, 72% ended up paying fines. 18% were sentenced to prison terms, but about 70% of the resulting prison sentences were suspended. In the end, only about 44,000 of the original 807,800 defendants (or a little over 5%) ended up behind bars.

        Prison sentences are also generally shorter than under the US criminal justice system. The maximum sentence that can be awarded (except for life sentences) is 15 years. Parole can be granted after two thirds of a sentence has been served (and for short sentences for first time offenders, sometimes after half of it has been served). As in the US, the recidivism statistics for offenders who do serve their sentence in full are bleak. But as for many other European countries, Germany doesn’t really do extremely long sentences: the rationale is that there’s a limit to how long you can keep someone in prison and have them still remain a functional human being. Dangerous offenders can be kept longer in prison through a system of preventive detention (this is also how Anders Breivik may end up effectively serving a life sentence); this approach has problems of its own (pretty much everything that has ever been written about three-strikes laws and their ilk), but it prevents sentences from being jacked up across the board to deal with a minority of perpetually dangerous criminals.

        Overall, there really isn’t anything magical going on: It’s just that when a criminal justice system avoids putting people in prison unnecessarily, fewer people will end up in prison.

        This does not come without cost, of course: For example, about 30% of all convicts who receive a suspended sentence will reoffend. But for a great many more people, this one time will remain their only contact with the criminal justice system, which may not have been the case if they had ended up in prison.

        [1] Germany’s nanny-statish tendencies are generally limited to administrative law and regulations; criminal law was pruned during several iterations of penal reforms going back to the 1960s.

        1. As ever Katja, you comment with this best. Thanks for these data and insights. I agree with you about long sentences (and of course capital punishment as well) reflecting certain aspects of US culture that do not seem well linked to the severity of crime.

          But I see violence as very important in why US citizens feel as they do about punishment. You mention the difference in violent crime rates, but I assign more importance to it as context for why the US and Europe differ than I gather that you do (tell me if I am wrong).

          Here are UNODC homicide data, which shows the US rate dramatically higher than that of Western Europe.

          Another interesting data point: James Q Wilson showed that per capita rates of violence in New York have been a multiple of that of London going back as far as records go, which is to the late 1800s, well before high-powered firearms became widely available.

          And another: The entire population of Western European prisons is but a fraction of the subset of US prisoners who are serving time for violent offenses.

          It doesn’t seem likely to me that if the Norwegians had gun massacres on the more regular basis that mass homicides occur in the US or even the US level of garden variety homicides (if there could be such a thing), that it would have no effect on Norwegian views of punishment. If the US had to deal with Norwegian crime and Norway had to deal with US crime, I strongly suspect criminal justice attitudes and policies would change in both countries.

          The argument was made by some leftists at the height of the US crime wave that the then broadly shared desire in the US to respond to crime with punishment was just hysteria/small-mindedness/racism/lack of cultural sophistication. I think the main reason that was decisively rejected as a political message by voters was that millions of people had been harmed by violence to them, their loved ones and/or had to live in fear of violence. I think — and have personally experienced in my travels– that the effect of an atmosphere of violence on cultural attitudes is profound.

          1. As ever Katja, you comment with this best. Thanks for these data and insights.

            If I may offer a humble suggestion, The League blog at Ordinary Times (formerly League of Ordinary Gentlemen) has a somewhat unique occasional practice they call comment rescue, in which one of the bloggers re-posts a comment as it’s own front-page blog post. I join you and probably everyone else here in considering Katja’s commentary worthy of such treatment on a regular basis.

          2. First, let me stress again that the difference in attitude is not limited to violent crimes. For example, the decriminalization of drug use in the Netherlands is to a large extent an outgrowth of how the Netherlands treat minor offenses in general; it is also worth noting that Dutch criminal law does not know minimum mandatory sentences. (This holds not just for minor crimes; for any crime, up to and including murder, there is no minimum sentence prescribed by Dutch law.) I’ll also refer you to this report on sentencing and incarceration in Germany and the Netherlands for a somewhat bigger picture.

            Second, violent crime. While the raw incidence of violent crime may be lower in Europe (though not universally so – for example, as I had mentioned before, the UK has higher robbery rates), this does not mean that the perception is different; news reporting shapes perception more than raw statistics. For example, the late 1970s saw a wave of terrorism in Germany perpetrated by far-left terror groups and an atmosphere of fear that was not unlike that of the Bush years [1]. The result was also a war of terror that, while not comparable in scope or as extreme as that of the Bush years, still curtailed quite a few civil liberties. Yet in 1977, the German Constitutional Court also declared life sentences without the possibility of parole unconstitutional and that decision really only required the legislature to codify existing practices, where life sentences were frequently commuted or paroled.

            These days, crime rates in ghettoized parts of German cities are a major source of concern [2]. You could write entire books on the Kurdish-Lebanese criminal clans that create problems in Berlin, Bremen, and Essen [3]. “Autos abfackeln”, i.e. setting cars on fire, is a another widely reported problem. There was the whole NSU affair, which is still occupying the front pages due to the ongoing criminal trial. If you were to believe the tabloids, Germany is drowning in violent crime, particularly immigrant and extremist crime, and it’s not safe to be out after dark. In reality, that’s an exaggeration. But there are definitely plenty of people pushing for tougher sentences because public perception is influenced by anecdotal experience more than statistics; I recall that the Gladbeck hostage crisis was a crime that led to skyrocketing popular support for the death penalty because of to the sadistic, psychopathic behavior of the killers. But these demands never seem to go anywhere, because neither politicians nor law enforcement support them.

            Speaking of law enforcement: A key difference between the US and the German system is in fact the office and the role of the prosecutor. In Germany, the office is much less politicized and is required to seek objective truth, not convictions (though, unlike judges, they do not have to start from a presumption of innocence). German prosecutors have a professional obligation to be neutral and objective under Germany’s non-adversarial criminal procedure code. The result is a much different prosecutorial mentality which aims at conducting objective investigations and uncovering the objective truth and is not conviction-oriented [4]. For example, a German prosecutor has not only the right but the duty to appeal a judge’s sentence if he or she believes that the sentence is too harsh; this serves as an additional check on the judiciary. Being a successful prosecutor is generally not a stepping stone towards political office.

            [1] My mother once remarked that to her the post 9/11 events sometimes felt like rewatching a time-shifted movie.
            [2] The story of Judge Kirsten Heisig and her “Neuköllner Modell” would be worth a separate write-up as another case study on the efficacy of swift and certain sanctions.
            [3] To be clear, they are no more representative of the Kurdish and Lebanese people than the Mafia is of Italians.
            [4] Obviously, German prosecutors aren’t saints anymore than American ones, and there are plenty of deviations from that ideal (in fact, a recent trial against a pastor in Saxony imploded because the court discovered that the prosecution had withheld crucial exculpatory video evidence); I’m describing the general institutional biases that the legal system attempts to instill in prosecutors.

          3. @Katja — thanks for this.

            First, let me stress again that the difference in attitude is not limited to violent crimes.

            I hear you and I agree with you, the differences are across the board. It’s entirely consistent with what I argued about violence driving public desire for punishment. I would expect Germany, as a less violent country to have less punitive attitudes toward crime in general — violence moves people viscerally in a way pickpocketing and the like just do not. When people are scared and angry, they don’t make distinctions very well between different sorts of crime and criminals, they just want punishment across the board.

            news reporting shapes perception more than raw statistics.

            I agree with this as well. I would add what shapes perception even more than either of those things is being a victim of violence or knowing one, and that is an experience people are far more likely to have in the US than in Western Europe. Many of the people at the very front of the U.S. tough on crime movement were people whose family members for example had been murdered…lesser crimes do not seem to motivate the same level of political activity; tables of statistics certainly do not. I see the experience of countless US victims of violence as (a) a reality, and, (b) important in explaining how people in the US feel about crime.

          4. “These days, crime rates in ghettoized parts of German cities are a major source of concern”

            I think this is a point that has to be hammered home concerning the US, as well. The US is not uniform lump of a country, any more than Germany is, less so in truth. Look at this:

            And that’s just within the city. Across the entire state, you’ve got a variation from 27 violent crimes per 100k population, to 1418 violent crimes per 100k. A range of 52 to 1.

            The most violent “state” is D.C., with an average violent crime rate of about 1500 per 100k. (To be fair, it’s actually a city, the most dangerous *state* is half as bad.) How bad do you suppose a bad neighborhood in D.C. is? The lowest state is Maine, with 116 per 100k. How safe do you imagine a good neighborhood in Maine might be?

            Any time you compare two highly heterogeneous collections to each other, and try to draw conclusions based on differences between the collections which are tiny compared to the differences between them, you’d better control REALLY well for those internal differences.

            If, instead, you say, “here’s the US, it’s got this rate, here’s Europe, it’s got that rate.”, well, you’re not actually reasoning, IMO.

          5. Continued (Because I find more than two links can send my comment to limbo.)

            I probably should have bookmarked that map I tried to insert. But here’s much the same data from wikipedia. There’s a HUGE difference in violent crime rates from one place in the city to another.

            I’ve had trouble finding comparable maps for Europe, but here’s an interesting chart from the Daily Mail: “The League of Shame”. Makes the US as a whole look good.

            The point being that you can’t really conflate homicide and violent crime, they vary independently. The US, run through a blender, looks considerably worse than Europe, run through a blender, on homicide. We look better on violent crime.

            Maybe we’re trading one for the other, somehow? And is it a bad trade? You’re far, far, more likely to be effected by violent crime, than by homicide. And most victims of homicide in the US are criminals anyway. Who knows, maybe that’s why our violent crime rate is lower, perhaps the violent criminals are killing each other off.

  3. Keith Humphreys says:
    “Yep, that was an own goal if there is ever was one.”

    In terms of facts, Brett is pretty much an ‘own goal’ machine. Good thing for his causes and factions that facts really don’t matter.

    From (http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/12/14/1337221/a-timeline-of-mass-shootings-in-the-us-since-columbine/), since I’m doing this quickly, the following mass shootings in the US over the past several years:

    ” ABC News reports that there have been 31 school shootings in the US since Columbine in 1999, when 13 people were killed. ”

    Note that that’s *school shootings*.

    Here’s a list from that website:

    “December 11, 2012. On Tuesday, 22-year-old Jacob Tyler Roberts killed 2 people and himself with a stolen rifle in Clackamas Town Center, Oregon. His motive is unknown.

    September 27, 2012. Five were shot to death by 36-year-old Andrew Engeldinger at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis, MN. Three others were wounded. Engeldinger went on a rampage after losing his job, ultimately killing himself.

    August 5, 2012. Six Sikh temple members were killed when 40-year-old US Army veteran Wade Michael Page opened fire in a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Four others were injured, and Page killed himself.

    July 20, 2012. During the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, CO, 24-year-old James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 58. Holmes was arrested outside the theater.

    May 29, 2012. Ian Stawicki opened fire on Cafe Racer Espresso in Seattle, WA, killing 5 and himself after a citywide manhunt.

    April 6, 2012. Jake England, 19, and Alvin Watts, 32, shot 5 black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in racially motivated shooting spree. Three died.

    April 2, 2012. A former student, 43-year-old One L. Goh killed 7 people at Oikos University, a Korean Christian college in Oakland, CA. The shooting was the sixth-deadliest school massacre in the US and the deadliest attack on a school since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

    February 27, 2012. Three students were killed by Thomas “TJ” Lane, another student, in a rampage at Chardon High School in Chardon, OH. Three others were injured.

    October 14, 2011. Eight people died in a shooting at Salon Meritage hair salon in Seal Beach, CA. The gunman, 41-year-old Scott Evans Dekraai, killed six women and two men dead, while just one woman survived. It was Orange County’s deadliest mass killing.

    September 6, 2011. Eduardo Sencion, 32, entered an IHOP restaurant in Carson City, NV and shot 12 people. Five died, including three National Guard members.

    January 8, 2011. Former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) was shot in the head when 22-year-old Jared Loughner opened fire on an event she was holding at a Safeway market in Tucson, AZ. Six people died, including Arizona District Court Chief Judge John Roll, one of Giffords’ staffers, and a 9-year-old girl. 19 total were shot. Loughner has been sentenced to seven life terms plus 140 years, without parole.

    August 3, 2010. Omar S. Thornton, 34, gunned down Hartford Beer Distributor in Manchester, CT after getting caught stealing beer. Nine were killed, including Thornton, and two were injured.

    November 5, 2009. Forty-three people were shot by Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan at the Fort Hood army base in Texas. Hasan reportedly yelled “Allahu Akbar!” before opening fire, killing 13 and wounding 29 others.

    April 3, 2009. Jiverly Wong, 41, opened fire at an immigration center in Binghamton, New York before committing suicide. He killed 13 people and wounded 4.

    March 29, 2009. Eight people died in a shooting at the Pinelake Health and Rehab nursing home in Carthage, NC. The gunman, 45-year-old Robert Stewart, was targeting his estranged wife who worked at the home and survived. Stewart was sentenced to life in prison.

    February 14, 2008. Steven Kazmierczak, 27, opened fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University, killing 6 and wounding 21. The gunman shot and killed himself before police arrived. It was the fifth-deadliest university shooting in US history.

    February 7, 2008. Six people died and two were injured in a shooting spree at the City Hall in Kirkwood, Missouri. The gunman, Charles Lee Thornton, opened fire during a public meeting after being denied construction contracts he believed he deserved. Thornton was killed by police.

    December 5, 2007. A 19-year-old boy, Robert Hawkins, shot up a department store in the Westroads Mall in Omaha, NE. Hawkins killed 9 people and wounded 4 before killing himself. The semi-automatic rifle he used was stolen from his stepfather’s house.

    April 16, 2007. Virginia Tech became the site of the deadliest school shooting in US history when a student, Seung-Hui Choi, gunned down 56 people. Thirty-two people died in the massacre.

    February 12, 2007. In Salt Lake City’s Trolley Square Mall, 5 people were shot to death and 4 others were wounded by 18-year-old gunman Sulejman Talović. One of the victims was a 16-year-old boy.

    October 2, 2006. An Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster, PA was gunned down by 32-year-old Charles Carl Roberts, Roberts separated the boys from the girls, binding and shooting the girls. 5 young girls died, while 6 were injured. Roberts committed suicide afterward.

    March 25, 2006. Seven died and 2 were injured by 28-year-old Kyle Aaron Huff in a shooting spree through Capitol Hill in Seattle, WA. The massacre was the worst killing in Seattle since 1983.

    March 21, 2005. Teenager Jeffrey Weise killed his grandfather and his grandfather’s girlfriend before opening fire on Red Lake Senior High School, killing 9 people on campus and injuring 5. Weise killed himself.

    March 12, 2005. A Living Church of God meeting was gunned down by 44-year-old church member Terry Michael Ratzmann at a Sheraton hotel in Brookfield, WI. Ratzmann was thought to have had religious motivations, and killed himself after executing the pastor, the pastor’s 16-year-old son, and 7 others. Four were wounded.

    July 8, 2003. Doug Williams, a Lockheed Martin employee, shot up his plant in Meridian, MS in a racially-motivated rampage. He shot 14 people, most of them African American, and killed 7 before killing himself.

    December 26, 2000. Edgewater Technology employee Michael “Mucko” McDermott shot and killed seven of his coworkers at the office in Wakefield, MA. McDermott claimed he had “traveled back in time and killed Hitler and the last 6 Nazis.” He was sentenced to 7 consecutive life sentences.

    September 15, 1999. Larry Gene Ashbrook opened fire on a Christian rock concert and teen prayer rally at Wedgewood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX. He killed 7 people and wounded 7 others, almost all teenagers. Ashbrook committed suicide.

    July 29, 1999. Mark Orrin Barton, 44, murdered his wife and two children with a hammer before shooting up two Atlanta day trading firms. Barton, a day trader, was believed to be motivated by huge monetary losses. He killed 12 including his family and injured 13 before killing himself.

    April 20, 1999. In the deadliest high school shooting in US history, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Kiebold shot up Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. They killed 13 people and wounded 21 others. They killed themselves after the massacre.”

    Note that none of those are the standard armed robbery gone wrong, or gang shootings.

    1. You DO understand I wasn’t denying that multiple victim shootings happen in the US? I was pointing out, in reponse to Keith, that they occur in Europe at a significant rate, greater than 50% of the US per capita rate. In fact, the difference between the US and European rate of such incidents is less than the difference you’ll find between individual states in the US, or individual nations in Europe.

      So, only in your imagination did posting a list of such events in the US contradict me.

      There is very little rational point in concerning ourselves with such incidents in particular, as they on average only involve 10 or so deaths a year. The number of such incidents is, thankfully, so low that the sample size precludes any kind of real statistical comparison or analysis, and anybody who pretends to be doing a statistical comparison between nations for such amazingly rare events is a fraud.

      If you stopped one multiple car pileup on our highways each year, you’d have as much impact on mortality rates. But that wouldn’t provide an excuse to attack a widely loved civil liberty, now, would it?

  4. “You DO understand I wasn’t denying that multiple victim shootings happen in the US? I was pointing out, in reponse to Keith, that they occur in Europe at a significant rate, greater than 50% of the US per capita rate. In fact, the difference between the US and European rate of such incidents is less than the difference you’ll find between individual states in the US, or individual nations in Europe. ”

    Do you actual proof of this? (not the state part)


    1. As I pointed out upthread, these events are so rare that it is impossible to sensibly reason statistically about them. Even the US or Europe as a whole are not having them happen often enough to reason about statistically.

      So, trivially, in any given year, some nations in Europe will have such an attack, and some will not. And that’s surely a larger difference than the less than 50% difference between the US and Europe averaged over the last decade.

      Really, I don’t think these events are worth doing anything about, they are so rare. I think we can do without policies to reduce folks being hit by lighting out of a clear sky, or being bonked by meteors, too.

      But, in the spirit of the hysteria over them, allow me to propose the “Denying Perpetrators Notoriety” act of 2014. This law would prohibit all mention of the name of the perpetrator of a multiple shooting, or a shooting on school grounds, and prohibit transmittal of their likeness outside of the context of a dragnet to find them. For a few days after the event they could be referred to, perhaps as “that clown”, or “that wretch”, and then any reference to them would cease. Further, it would establish an agency which, after any such attack, go about erasing from all public records any reference to the guilty party’s existence. They would be airbrushed out of history.

      Thus denying to the perpetrators what they most hope to get, and what the media relentlessly provide them with: Notoriety. Knowing that perpetrating such an act would erase them from the world, instead of causing everybody to hear their names, they might hesitate in committing them.

      Now, you will doubtless point out that this legislation would violate the 1st amendment, and represents a tremendous over-reach given the scope of the problem. Right back at you. The only reason you go on about these rare events is that you think you can leverage them to attack a civil liberty.

      But why should YOU get to pick which civil liberty gets sacrificed to this hysteria?

  5. I am one of the people who ticked off Mark in that earlier thread, and I can’t imagine why someone would post an anti-drug war rant here. Keith is actually finding common ground with the supporters of liberalized drug laws here. It’s a good post and didn’t deserve a rant.

  6. “What is different about federal prisons that makes them out of step with the broader national de-incarceration trend?”

    From that release that you linked (trends in 2012), it seems what the Fed’s lack is California’s realignment policy. If California had stayed relatively consistent with it’s prison admissions, instead of dramatically dropping (2010 = 118K admissions, 2011 = 96,669, 2012 = 34K) those admissions could have wiped out the decrease in prison population overall, which was a decrease of about 28,600 prisoners. So while there is a de-incarceration trend, we should be careful about what conclusion we draw from it, since it was court mandated rather than driven by some enlightened public policy. Also note that California seriously put the brakes on releasing prisoners. I could cynically speculate that was the prison industry trying to keep business going in the face of realignment, but I really have little clue how that all works. But it sure seems weird (2010 = 121K releases, 2011 = 109K, 2012 = 40k).

    1. In reply to myself, also notice the net effect of those changes. If this formula is true: Admissions – Releases = Net change in prison population; then for California the net change is (using the figures I posted above) 2010 = -3K, 2011 = -13K, and 2012 = -6K. The drop was lower in 2012, than 2011, which could mean the trend is ending.

      Another indicator that the trend might be over is a look at the total correctional population, rather than just the prison population: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p09.pdf. Notice this:
      “The decrease observed during 2012 marked the fourth consecutive year of decline in the correctional population. However, this was the smallest decrease (down 0.7%) since the correctional population first declined in 2009,reversing a three-year trend of increasing rates of decline that started in 2009 and continued through 2011”

      1. It’s more complex than admissions – releases. The federal system in 2012 actually released about 100 more people than it admitted, but the federal prison population still went up by 1,500 inmates.


        California is a big part of the national change but not all of it, populations would have dropped even if California were constant– Texas and South Carolina are among the other states that have been cutting prison populations. The argument that if you throw out some of the data that contributes to a trend, then that trend looks weaker is logically correct…but what does it tell us to say that if what happened hadn’t happened, it would not have happened?

  7. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (The Act) gave birth to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) as an independent agency of the Judicial branch. (Section 994(a) of title 28) The Act also abolished discretionary “federal parole”, consequently, greatly increasing the expected time a federal prisoner must serve in prison, which is, by far, the most dominating factor contributing to the federal prison population explosion, from 1987-2013. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and Draconian sentences for non-violent crime was a retreat to the Dark Ages of ignorance and reaction. Modification of
    the Act to reinstate discretionary federal parole for non-violent crimes would save American taxpayers, and the government billions of dollars, reduce prison violence by offering prisoners the incentive of applying for parole with satisfactory conduct while incarcerated and reduce the monstrous prison overcrowding calamity.

  8. There has been an increase in the railway bookings over the period with many of them going under the RAC lists or waiting lists. The passengers are allotted a number known as "PNR" pnr status
    (Passenger Number Record) that helps them check the status of their reservation.

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