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There are five times as many Americans behind bars today as in 1970. The national incarceration rate in 1997 was twice that in 1985. California's prison system has become the third largest in the world. And despite some limited recent declines in crime rates, we remain by far the most violent industrial society on earth.
Though our massive investment in the prison system has not resulted in enduring public safety, politicians and the media continue to insist that America's unique problem of violence is the result of a lenient society "soft" on criminals; that incarcerating an ever-larger proportion of our population is a "social program that works;" and that all other approaches to crime—from prevention to rehabilitation—have failed. Nationally acclaimed criminologist Elliott Currie dissects these myths in a groundbreaking book that is already changing the terms of the current debate.
“Persuasively demonstrates the debilitating effects of extreme poverty on children....If our crime policy were a stock, shrewd investors would be selling it short.”—David J. Rothman, The New York Times Book Review
“A must-read.”—San Jose Mercury News
"If legislators and citizens absorbed Currie's sound policy alternatives, they might stop lurching down the path he shows is departing more and more from both science and common sense."—The New York Times Book Review
“Important and thoughtful.”—Chicago Tribune
“Earnest, free of jargon, lucid…This is a book that ought to be read by anyone concerned about crime and punishment in America.”—The Washington Post Book World
Just as violent crime has become part of the accepted backdrop of life in the United States, so too has the growth of the system we've established to contain it. A huge and constantly expanding penal system seems to us like a normal and inevitable feature of modern life. But what we have witnessed in the past quarter century is nothing less than a revolution in our justice system--a transformation unprecedented in our own history, or in that of any other industrial democracy.
In 1971 there were fewer than 200,000 inmates in our state and federal prisons. By the end of 1996 we were approaching 1.2 million. The prison population, in short, has nearly sextupled in the course of twenty-five years. Adding in local jails brings the total to nearly 1.7 million. To put the figure of 1.7 million into perspective, consider that it is roughly equal to the population of Houston Texas, the fourth-largest city in the nation, and more than twice that of San Francisco. Our overall national population has grown, too, of course, but the prison population has grown much faster: as a proportion of the American population, the number behind bars has more than quadrupled. During the entire period from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, the nation's prison incarceration rate--the number of inmates in state and federal prisons per 100,000 population--fluctuated in a narrow band between a low of 93 (in 1972) and a high of 119 (in 1961). By 1996 it had reached 427 per 100,000.
Bear in mind that these figures are averages for the country as a whole. In many states, the transformation has been even more startling. The increase in the number of prisoners in the state of Texas from 1991 to 1996 alone--about 80,000--is far larger than the total prison population of France or the United Kingdom, and roughly equal to the total prison population of Germany, a nation of over 80 million people (Texas has about 18 million). Within a few years, if current rates of increase continue, Texas's prison population (as well as California's) should surpass that of the entire country at the start of the 1970s. In California, nearly one in six state employees works in the prison system.
The effect of this explosion on some communities is by now well known, thanks to the work of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, and others. By the mid-1990s roughly one in three young black men were under the "supervision" of the criminal-justice system--that is, in a jail or prison, on probation or parole, or under pretrial release. The figure was two out of five in California, and over half in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. In California today, four times as many black men are "enrolled" in state prison as are enrolled in public colleges and universities. Nationally, there are twice as many black men in state and federal prison today as there were men of all races twenty years ago. More than anything else, it is the war on drugs that has caused this dramatic increase: between 1985 and 1995, the number of black state prison inmates sentenced for drug offenses rose by more than 700 percent. Less discussed, but even more startling, is the enormous increase in the number of Hispanic prisoners, which has more than quintupled since 1980 alone.
Equally dramatic changes have taken place for women. In 1970 there were slightly more than 5,600 women in state and federal prisons across the United States. By 1996 there were nearly 75,000--a thirteenfold increase. For most of the period after World War II, the female incarceration rate hovered at around 8 per 100,000; it did not reach double digits until 1977. Today it is 51 per 100,000. Women's incarceration rates in Texas, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia now surpass the overall rates for both sexes that prevailed nationally in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At current rates of increase, there will be more women in America's prisons in the year 2010 than there were inmates of both sexes in 1970. When we combine the effects of race and gender, the nature of these shifts in the prison population is even clearer. The prison incarceration rate for black women today exceeds that for white men as recently as 1980.
These extraordinary increases do not simply reflect a rising crime rate that has strained the capacity of a besieged justice system. Crime did rise during this period, as we'll see; but the main reason for the stunning growth in prison populations was that the courts and legislatures did indeed get "tougher" on offenders. The National Research Council calculated in 1993 that the average prison time served per violent crime in the United States roughly tripled between 1975 and 1989 (and it has increased even further since)--mainly because offenders were more likely to be imprisoned at all once convicted, partly because many of them stayed behind bars longer once sentenced.
Seen in the context of a single country; even these extraordinary figures on the "boom" in imprisonment lose meaning. But when we place the American experience in international perspective its uniqueness becomes clear. The simplest way to do this is to compare different countries incarceration rates--the number of people behind bars as a proportion of the population. In 1995, the most recent year we can use for comparative purposes, the overall incarceration rate for the United States was 600 per 100,000 population, including local jails (but not juvenile institutions). Around the world, the only country with a higher rate was Russia, at 690 per 100,000. Several other countries of the former Soviet bloc also had high rates--270 per 100,000 in Estonia, for example, and 200 in Romania--as did, among others, Singapore (229) and South Africa (368). But most industrial democracies clustered far below us, at around 55 to 120 per 100,000, with a few--notably Japan, at 36--lower still. Spain and the United Kingdom, our closest "competitors" among the major nations of western Europe, imprison their citizens at a rate roughly one-sixth of ours; Holland and Scandinavia, about one-tenth.
Such is the magnitude of these differences that they often override one of the most powerful and universal influences on both crime and punishment--gender. Throughout the world, women make up a relatively small proportion of the prison population--less than 7 percent in the United States--and accordingly have far lower incarceration rates than men. But the incarceration rate for women in some American states is greater than the overall rate in most western European countries; the state of Oklahoma, at this writing, imprisons its female population at a rate higher than that for women and men in England or France.
The trends in the use of imprisonment over time also differ strikingly between the United States and most other advanced societies. We've seen that the American incarceration rate roughly quadrupled--that is, rose by about 300 percent--from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. Between 1968 and 1987, the imprisonment rate rose by 45 percent in England and Wales, 34 percent in France, and 16 percent in the Netherlands; it fell in Western Germany by about 4 percent and in Sweden by a remarkable 26 percent (rates of imprisonment have gone up significantly in England and the Netherlands in the 1990s, but not enough to match the escalation in the United States).
These comparative incarceration rates, not surprisingly, are often taken as evidence that the United States is a more punitive country than other industrial democracies. But some people argue that this kind of comparison is intrinsically misleading. Comparing different countries' use of imprisonment, in this view, is meaningless unless we also take into account the underlying crime rate. If the United States has more crime--or more serious crime--than other countries, then of course we'll have more imprisonment, other things being equal. This is an important point, if it is not taken too far. Unfortunately, it often is. There is a tendency among some commentators to want to downplay America's unusual prominence when it comes to crime and punishment, despite what the figures would seem to show. Some even want to have it both ways--arguing, almost in one breath, that the United States does not have an unusually severe crime problem and that it is not noticeably more punitive than other industrial countries. Obviously, however, that can't be true; our high incarceration rate relative to those of other countries must mean either than we have more (or worse) crime to begin with or that we are more severe with the criminals we have, or some combination of both. It cannot come from nowhere.
In fact, the best evidence shows that America's "exceptionalism" is indeed a combination of both factors. As we'll see in detail later, crime is worse in the United States--especially major crimes of violence, but also some less serious offenses, including drug crimes. And though comparing sentencing practices across different countries is a very tricky enterprise, the best research suggests that we are tougher on many kinds of offenders than other industrial countries for which we have comparable data. In fact, sentences in the United States tend to be longer for all but the most serious offenses, notably homicide--a crime for which social or cultural differences are least likely to affect sentencing policy. Every country puts away murderers, usually for a long time. Hence we would not expect large differences among countries in the way murderers are sentenced (though it is curious that those who argue that the United States isn't especially punitive generally fail to mention that we are the only industrial democracy that still makes significant use of the death penalty for homicide). But there is likely to be more variation in the way countries treat property and drug crimes--as well as robbery, which is usually classified as a violent crime, and here the United States stands out, often dramatically.
The differences appear whether we look at the likelihood of being sent to prison at all for given offenses (what criminologists sometimes call the "propensity to incarcerate") or the length of time offenders will spend behind bars once incarcerated (the severity of the sentences). On the first count, research suggests that compared, for example, with England and Wales, the United States is about equally likely to put someone behind bars for murder but considerably more likely to do so for burglary. That was true even back in the mid-1980s, when, according to an analysis by David Farrington of Cambridge University and Patrick Langan of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the likelihood of someone found guilty of burglary going behind bars was 40 percent in England and Wales but 74 percent in the United States. The difference is even greater now, after many years of tougher treatment of property offenders in the U.S. Robbery presents a somewhat more complex picture. In the mid-1980s, the United States was about as likely to imprison convicted robbers as England but considerably more likely to do so than West Germany. And these figures overstate the similarities between the United States and other countries because they focus on a handful of countries that are among the tougher European nations: Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and Holland, among others, use prison far more sparingly than Great Britain. (In 1987, for example, the Swedes imprisoned their population per violent crime at less than one-fourth the English rate.)
Especially for property crime, then, the United States sweeps considerably more offenders who come before the courts into jail or prison. Once behind bars, moreover, Americans tend to stay longer, which is the second reason our imprisoned population is so large. Farrington and Langan also found that average sentences imposed in the U.S. in the mid-1980s were far harsher than in England--roughly three times as long for robbery and burglary, twice as long for rape, and half again as long for homicide, leading them to conclude that "the belief that America is more punitive than England in its treatment of offenders is correct." To be sure, the sentence initially imposed by a court is rarely what an offender actually serves behind bars, since in most countries there are a variety of ways offenders can be released before the official sentence is up, through some form of parole or "good time' (which some countries call "remission"). But Farrington and Langan found similar disparities in actual time served: Americans convicted of robbery spent about twice as long behind bars as their British counterparts, and those convicted of burglary and assault well over twice as long. Even murderers averaged about 7 percent longer in custody in the United States, though homicide is one offense where the British stood out as relatively tough. (In Sweden, life sentences for homicide are rare, and as of the late 1980s most murderers were released after eight years.) Similarly, the criminologist James Lynch, of American University, while rejecting the contention that the United States is particularly punitive, nevertheless provides useful figures showing that when it comes to crimes other than murder, it is. As of the early to mid-1980s, for example, American robbers were likely to serve about forty-five months behind bars, versus twenty-seven in England and twenty-four in Australia. The disparities are similar for burglary and even greater for theft: American burglars averaged twice as much time in custody as Canadian burglars; American thieves, 3 1/2 times their Canadian counterparts.
A similar pattern holds for drug offenders, the fastest-growing segment of the American prison population since the mid-1980s. In 1990 British drug offenders were half as likely to go to jail or prison as Americans, and when they did go they were likely to stay for shorter periods (and they were far less likely to be sentenced to the extraordinary long terms that have become emblematic of the American drug war). According to Lynch, the proportion of American drug offenders sentenced to over ten years was more than triple that in England and Wales.
As Lynch points out, untangling the precise implications of these figures is not easy. The unusually long sentences for some crimes in the United States could mean that the crimes Americans commit within a given category are typically more serious--that our robberies may, for example, more often involve aggravating conditions, like the use of a gun. But that doesn't explain our unusual harshness toward offenses that by definition are not very serious and do not involve guns, like larceny. Another explanation might be that Americans are more likely to have prior offenses, making them candidates for harsher penalties. But in fact the opposite seems to be true, at least for England; British offenders are more likely than Americans to have prior offenses, or, put another way, America appears to be more inclined than England to imprison first-time offenders. Again, most of these comparisons considerably understate the international differences, since they are mainly based on figures that are by now well behind the times; Lynch's American figures, for example, are from 1983. After nearly a decade and a half of relentlessly stiffening sentences--a trend unmatched in most other countries, some of which have actually gone in the other direction--our comparative severity has increased substantially.
An interesting study done under the auspices of the International Bar Association and analyzed by the British criminologist Ken Pease sheds more light on international differences in the propensity to punish. One of the reasons it is difficult to pin down cross-national differences in sentencing is that countries often classify crimes differently, so that what counts as a "robbery" in one country may be called something else in another. This study got around the problem by describing specific offenses and then asking judges and other criminal justice practitioners to predict the sentence the offenders would receive in their own jurisdictions. The results confirmed that there are enormous differences in national attitudes toward punishment. At the low end of the scale are nations like Norway, which remain fairly reluctant to impose any prison time, especially for less serious offenses; at the high end, there is the state of Texas, which on Pease's scale of punitiveness ranked between the United Arab Emirates and Nigeria.
No matter how we approach the question, then, the United States does turn out to be relatively punitive in its treatment of offenders, and very much so for less serious crimes. Yet in an important sense, this way of looking at the issue of "punitiveness" sidesteps the deeper implications of the huge international differences in incarceration. For it is arguably the incarceration rate itself, not the rate per offense, that tells us the most important things about a nation's approach to crime and punishment. An incarceration rate that is many times higher than that of comparable countries is a signal that something is very wrong. Either the country is punishing offenders with a severity far in excess of what is considered normal in otherwise similar societies, or it is breeding a far higher level of serious crime, or both. In the case of the U.S., it is indeed both. As we've seen, the evidence suggests that we are more punitive when it comes to property and drug crimes, but not as far from the norm in punishing violent crimes. We have an unusually high incarceration rate, then, partly because of our relatively punitive approach to nonviolent offenses, and partly because of our high level of serious violent crime. On both counts, the fact that we imprison our population at a rate six to ten times higher than that of other advanced societies means that we rely far more on our penal system to maintain social order--to enforce the rules of our common social life--than other industrial nations do. In a very real sense, we have been engaged in an experiment, testing the degree to which a modern industrial society can maintain public order through the threat of punishment. That is the more profound meaning of the charge that America is an unusually punitive country. We now need to ask how well the experiment has worked.
The prison has become a looming presence in our society to an extent unparallelled in our history--or that of any other industrial democracy. Short of major wars, mass incarceration has been the most thoroughly implemented government social program of our time. And as with other government programs, it is reasonable to ask what we have gotten in return.
Let me be clear: there is legitimate dispute about the effects of imprisonment on crime, and people of goodwill can and do argue about the precise impact of the incarceration boom of the past twenty-five years. But the legitimate dispute takes place within very narrow boundaries, and the available evidence cannot be comforting to those who put great hopes on the prison experiment. Nor do we have reason to expect better results in the future; indeed, if anything, just the opposite.
Here, in a nutshell, is where we stand after more than two decades of the prison boom. The good news is that reported violent crime has declined in the country as a whole since about 1992--quite sharply in some cities--suggesting that, at least in most places, the worst of the epidemic of violence that rocked the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s has passed. But the bad news is extensive and troubling. First, most of the recent decline represents a leveling off from unprecedented rises in the preceding several years--and therefore a longer time frame reveals no significant decline at all. Second, even that return to the norm has been disturbingly uneven, disproportionately accounted for by the experience of a few large cities, notably New York. Third, even in those cities violent crime often remains higher, and rarely more than fractionally lower, than it was before our massive investment in incarceration began. Fourth, violence has risen dramatically over the past twenty-five years in many other cities, despite the prison boom and despite several other developments that should have reduced violence. Fifth, the overall figures on trends in violent crime conceal a tragic explosion of violence among the young and poor, which has yet to return to the already intolerably high levels of the mid-1980s. Finally, there is nothing in these patterns to reassure us that an epidemic of violence won't erupt again.
Let's consider this picture in greater detail. Nationally, violent crime rates peaked in 1991. Since then, through 1996, the number of homicides fell by about 22 percent. But that decline followed a rise of 32 percent from 1984--its recent low--through 1991, one of the fastest increases in lethal violence in recent history. Reported robberies have also fallen about 22 percent since 1991, but that followed a 42 percent rise from 1984 to the 1991 peak. Reported rapes have fallen less sharply, by about 12 percent, following a rapid 27 percent rise from 1984 to 1991. To be sure, the recent improvements are welcome; in the real world, the cold numbers translate into lives saved and tragedies averted. But though where we are today is certainly better than where we were a few years ago, it is not a good place to be. To borrow the language of public health, we suffered a particularly virulent epidemic of violence from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. The numbers tell us that the worst of that epidemic has apparently passed. But violent crime remains endemic in our society at shockingly high levels. It is crucial to keep these trends in historical perspective. When it comes to crime, as with many other social problems, our collective memory is short. We were said to be "winning the war on crime" once before in recent years, in the early 1980s, when the level of murder and robbery also dropped sharply--and just before we suffered one of the fastest rises in criminal violence in our national history.
Though the recent declines in violent crime have occurred in many cities across the country, moreover, a handful of cities account for a considerable proportion of the overall trend. There were about 137,000 fewer robberies in the United States in 1996 than in 1992; New York City alone contributed 41,000 of that total, or about 30 percent, and if we look back further in time, the picture appears considerably grimmer. An examination of homicide rates over the past quarter century in the hardest-hit American cities is a particularly sobering exercise. Again, there is some good news. Boston's homicide rate, for example, fell by about 3 percent between 1970 and 1995; San Francisco's, by about 13 percent. (New York--where the most notable recent declines in homicide have taken place--actually suffered an overall slight rise over this longer period, though it has fallen further since.) But there is also a great deal of bad news. Murder was up about 70 percent in Los Angeles, over 80 percent in Phoenix, over 90 percent in Oakland and Memphis. It more than doubled in Washington, Birmingham, Richmond, and Jackson, Mississippi. In Milwaukee and Rochester (N.Y.), homicide rates exploded by more than 200 percent in these years; in Minneapolis, by over 300 percent. In New Orleans, the homicide rate rose by a stunning 329 percent.
Let's pause on that last figure for a moment. Louisiana was always a tough state, and by 1995 it led every state in the nation, except Texas, in its incarceration rate--which was five times higher in the mid-1990s than it was in the early 1970s. But the unfortunate citizens of New Orleans, its largest city, were more than four times as likely to die by violence at the end of the period than at the beginning (it is perhaps no wonder that in the early 1990s, according to news reports, at least one New Orleans neighborhood held voodoo ceremonies imploring the spirits to do something about crime, since clearly no one else was).
Moreover, those explosive rises in homicide, in the face of even more rapid increases in incarceration, took place despite improvements in the medical response to injury that should--other things being equal--have lowered death rates from violence (by 1995 most major cities had advanced trauma units capable of providing state-of-the-art care to victims of serious assaults), and despite the often-cited decline in the proportion of youth in the population that should also--other things being equal--have dampened them.
But other things were not equal, and instead we had both fewer young people and far more youth violence. Indeed, the epidemic of violence that began in the mid-1980s was concentrated among the young, who were both its main instigators and its main victims. Violence among the young has, at this writing, fallen off from its early-1990s peak; but outside of a handful of cities--Boston is a notable example--it remains higher than it was before the sharp recent rises, which brought many cities the worst levels of youth violence in their history. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes fell by 4 percent during 1995, but that followed a 64 percent rise in the previous seven years.
As with incarceration, it is only when we look overseas that we can grasp the full meaning of the trends in youth violence in America. In 1987, the homicide death rate among American men aged fifteen to twenty-four, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was 22 per 100,000. By 1994 it had risen by two-thirds--to 37 per 100,000. To put those quite abstract numbers into some perspective, consider that the comparable rate for British youth in 1994 was 1.0 per 100,000. By the mid-1990s, in other words, a young American male was 37 times as likely to die by deliberate violence as his English counterpart--and 12 times as likely as a Canadian youth, 20 times as likely as a Swede, 26 times as likely as a young Frenchman, and over 60 times as likely as a Japanese.
It's well known that young men of color have been the worst victims of this crisis; the homicide death rate for young black men more than doubled from 1985 to 1993, to 167 per 100,000 (it was 46 in 1960). But lest it be thought that America's grisly dominance in youth homicide is entirely a matter of race, bear in mind that the homicide death rate for non-Hispanic white youth in the early 1990s was roughly 6 times that for French youth--of all races combined--and 20 times that for Japanese youth.
Some of the most chilling numbers on the magnitude of this crisis--and its concentration among the young and poor--come from a study of injuries in inner-city Philadelphia by Donald Schwartz and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. Over the course of four years, 1987 through 1990, fully 40 percent of young black men from these neighborhoods suffered a violent assault serious enough to send them to a hospital emergency room.
Although the numbers on youth violence have improved somewhat since the early 1990s, they would have to improve enormously to bring American levels of youth violence even close to those of other industrial societies. And some of the reasons for the improvement provide small comfort. To some extent, the epidemic of violence among such a concentrated segment of the youth and young adult population was probably self-limiting. Put bluntly, part of the reason for the falling off of violence from its recent peak may be that a significant number of those at highest risk of being either perpetrators or victims have been removed from the picture--through death, disease, or disability.
Recall that the homicide death rate among black men aged fifteen to twenty-four reached 167 per 100,000 in 1993 (in New York City, it reached 247 per 100,000). At the same time, the death rate from HIV infection among black men aged twenty-five to thirty-four reached 117 per 100,000, and it hit 200 per 100,000 for those thirty-five to forty-four, almost tripling since 1987 alone. The numbers mount still higher if we add in drug-related deaths and serious illnesses. Overall, young black men aged fifteen to twenty-four were 66 percent more likely to die in 1993 than in 1985--a stunning reversal of decades of general improvement in life expectancy. And these general figures, grim as they are, understate the depth of the disaster that struck black men in particular in the hardest-hit urban areas. In the Philadelphia study; an astonishing 94 percent of inner-city men in their twenties had been to an emergency room at least once for a serious injury during a four-year period. And a study of HIV prevalence among black men in their thirties in central Harlem, conducted by Ann Brunswick and her colleagues at Columbia University's School of Public Health, turned up a rate of infection of almost 14 percent--nearly one in seven.
If we concentrate on the young people who are most likely to commit violent crime, this pattern--what we might euphemistically call the attrition of the at-risk population--appears even more starkly. In a study of youthful offenders released from the California Youth Authority in the early 1980s, Pamela Lattimore and her colleagues at the National Institute of Justice discovered that almost 6 percent had died by the early 1990s--most before the age of thirty. (To put the 6 percent figure in perspective, note that it is roughly thirteen times the death rate for black men aged twenty-five to thirty-four in the general population.) Almost half of the deaths were due to homicide; accidents, suicide, drugs, HIV and "legal intervention"--being killed by the authorities--accounted for most of the rest. The proportions were even higher for black youths living in Los Angeles. "In public health terms," the researchers write, "the morbidity among these young subjects ... is astonishing."
We usually miss the full dimensions of the combined effects of incarceration, HIV infection, violence, accidents, and substance abuse on this population because we typically add up the costs of each of these ills on separate ledgers. When we put them together on the same ledger, what we see is nothing less than a social and demographic catastrophe--and one that, tragically, may help explain the recent decline in violent crime in the most affected communities.
This, then, is the state of violence in America's inner cities--after more than two decades of the most intensive investment in the incarceration of criminals, violent and otherwise, that anyone, anywhere, has ever seen.
Indeed, what is most striking about these numbers is that they show not only that our national prison experiment had far less impact than its promoters expected but even less than its critics did. As far back as the 1970s, many criminologists argued that we could never incarcerate our way out of the crime problem--that imprisonment, however justified in individual cases, was inherently limited as an overall strategy of controlling crime. But they never suggested that massive increases in imprisonment would have no effect whatsoever on the crime rate. Most of them believed, in particular, that there was indeed such a thing as an "incapacitation" effect.
|1||Assessing the Prison Experiment||12|
|3||Alternatives I: Prevention||80|
|4||Alternatives II: Social Action||110|
|5||Alternatives III: The Justice System||162|