Prison Nation Update

More essential reading from Adam Liptak -- the lead paragraph says it all:

The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.

The U.S. leads the world in imprisoning its population: 751 people are in prison for every 100,000 in the population. Russia comes in second, with 627 out of 100,000 behind bars. The numbers for England and Germany are 151 and 88 per 100,000, respectively. Why are the U.S. numbers so high?

Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.

How is America's "lock 'em up" mentality perceived in the rest of the world? (more ...)

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences. ... “Far from serving as a model for the world, contemporary America is viewed with horror,” James Q. Whitman, a specialist in comparative law at Yale, wrote last year in Social Research.

A good number of people involved in the American legal system feel the same way. Politicians, ever fearful of being labeled soft on crime, not so much.

As Liptak notes, many argue that long sentences equate to less crime, but evidence in support of that proposition is sketchy at best. Is there significantly less drug use now than there was 30 years ago, when politicians declared war on drugs?

Some of the pro-incarceration arguments are misleading. Consider the comments of Paul Cassell, a former federal judge:

From 1981 to 1996, according to Justice Department statistics, the risk of punishment rose in the United States and fell in England. The crime rates predictably moved in the opposite directions, falling in the United States and rising in England.

“These figures,” Mr. Cassell wrote, “should give one pause before too quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate.”

There is a difference between "risk of punishment" and "severity of punishment." The notion that potential burglar, who serves an average of 16 months if convicted in the U.S., would be more inclined to commit burglaries if the average were only 5 months, as it is in Canada, is ridiculous. Potential criminals might be deterred by the risk of being caught, but there's no evidence that they factor the potential length of sentence into their decision-making about whether to commit a crime.

Liptak notes that Canada provides an interesting comparison that suggests ever-increasing incarceration rates have little impact on crime:

“Rises and falls in Canada’s crime rate have closely paralleled America’s for 40 years,” [Michael] Tonry wrote last year. “But its imprisonment rate has remained stable.”<

It's time to reassess the costs and benefits of living in prison nation.

< For The Record . . . | More On The "Umbrella Of Deterrence" >
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    Prisons should be for (5.00 / 3) (#2)
    by ytterby on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 10:19:14 AM EST
    people we're afraid of, not people we're mad at.

    Excellent summation! (none / 0) (#15)
    by lilybart on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:03:26 PM EST
    American are very prone to retribution.

    My theory is that Capitalism contributes to this feeling. We are all fighting for our little piece of the pie, and the more people we jail, the more pie for us!


    we now have the largest (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by Capt Howdy on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 10:39:02 AM EST
    prison population in the world.


    dude, wheres my country?

    The worst criminals aren't getting busted (5.00 / 1) (#14)
    by Yes2Truth on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 11:57:48 AM EST

    White collar criminals cause far more harm to society than even burglars and yet the petty thief or burglar is who is targeted by law enforcement.

    No one should even be in the criminal justice system for something they've smoked, eaten, or injected.  Not imprisoned and not arrested.

    We should be electing politicians who advocate legalizing freedom, being tough on the cause of  crime, and cracking down on the most harmful criminals in society:  white collar criminals, whether in the corner office or the Oval office.

    A lawyer with a briefcase (none / 0) (#18)
    by lilybart on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:09:48 PM EST
    can steal more in less time than any robber!

    Personally (none / 0) (#23)
    by AnninCA on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:26:57 PM EST
    I understand that white-collar crimes are serious.  I look at corporate crimes as really, really bad.

    I'd like to see real consequences for some of the CEOs of companies who have led stockholders into situations where their very retirement is threatened.

    I know.  I worked on a high corporate level in the S&L industry.  We did exactly that.  We tricked long-time stockholders.

    They ended up with a deal that was a 5-1 reverse stock split.

    The executives waltzed out with multi-million dollar "severance" packages.

    It's a rape of stockholders.

    However, does prison threat deter this?

    I'm not sure.

    Martha sure looks chirpy these days.  :)


    Prisons Have Become A Major Industry (5.00 / 1) (#21)
    by MO Blue on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:22:26 PM EST
    in the U.S. and have been used to create jobs particurly in rural areas. Drove through Nevada last summer and astonished at the number of areas designation as prison zones along Highway 81.  

    it's also for gerrymandering (5.00 / 1) (#34)
    by boredmpa on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 02:23:58 PM EST
    In at least some states, the prison population is counted where the prison is in order to determine representation.  

    Nevermind if they can't vote or they're all from a major city; it benefits the locals tremendously.


    Prison (none / 0) (#1)
    by AnninCA on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 10:11:01 AM EST
    terms are ridiculous, but I remain optimistic that we are finally emeging from the swing to the right that put into motion so many laws that led to this situation.

    Back we head to the middle.....

    Great Post (none / 0) (#4)
    by Claw on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 10:41:03 AM EST
    Refreshing change of pace from all the hysteria on the political threads.  We shouldn't forget that whichever Dem is elected will begin the process of fixing this situation.  Or at least they won't make it unimaginably worse, as will McCain.
    Also, we shouldn't forget that we like to pretend that low level drug users are actually intending to distribute.  And just about anything else we can tack on.  I'm always shocked when someone who is so crippled by addiction that they're barely able to get out of bed; fail, despite their best and often heartbreaking efforts, critical drug tests, get the intent to distribute charge.  Well, no, not shocked.  I think I meant saddened.

    Hillary is not the person (none / 0) (#16)
    by lilybart on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:04:28 PM EST
    to look to for prison reform.

    To look strong, she will lock-em up too.


    I disagree (none / 0) (#28)
    by Claw on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 01:29:43 PM EST
    She isn't running for DA, she's running for President.  Also, her judicial nominations would be much better than McCain's.  Point being, we NEED a dem in the White House.  

    legalize hashish. (none / 0) (#6)
    by Salo on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 10:45:45 AM EST

    correct. (none / 0) (#7)
    by Salo on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 10:46:57 AM EST
    I want violent offenders put away longer.

    hash smokers shouldn't be filling their bunks.

    pot is not much worse than alchohol (none / 0) (#12)
    by Salo on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 11:52:26 AM EST
    but it is a waste of time.

    Alcohol is much worse. (5.00 / 2) (#17)
    by lilybart on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:08:15 PM EST
    Ask any emergency room worker.

    Ask the abused women and children who live with drunks. Now a husband who is a cronic pot-smoker might not pay the electric bill, but he won't beat them up in  a stoned rage.

    Ask the people who were maimed in a car by a drunk driver,

    Ask the doctors who treat untreatable pancreatic and liver diseases.

    "Stoned rage" is a phrase that makes no sense!


    Alchol abuse (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by AnninCA on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:22:26 PM EST
    is horrible.  Drug abuse causes the burglaries.

    In my very pristine neighborhood, with every area of grass carefully manicured, we are now exposed to the druggees.

    They tend to be even more desperate for money than alcoholics.

    That's the only difference that I see.  


    But that's because drug prices ... (none / 0) (#26)
    by cymro on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 01:02:35 PM EST
    ... are artificially high, because the drugs are illegal. Alcohol, being legal, is much less expensive.

    Pot smokers are not burglers (none / 0) (#27)
    by lilybart on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 01:20:15 PM EST
    Pot is not addictive to the point that people rob others. Really, do you have any idea the differences between meth, crack, heroin and a weed I can grow in my backyard?

    Not True (none / 0) (#29)
    by Claw on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 01:32:04 PM EST
    What if a pot head broke into your home and you were eating funyuns?  WHAT THEN???

    I would give him the funyuns (none / 0) (#36)
    by lilybart on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 02:48:57 PM EST
    but if you give a pot-head some funyuns, he may want  a Diet Coke.....

    (if you know the books, If you Give a Mouse a Cookie etc..)


    Ohhhh (none / 0) (#40)
    by Claw on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 04:06:18 PM EST
    Very funny.  It's all a big joke to you pot-smokin-hippie liberals, isn't it?  
    Those are great books and I hadn't realized they were about marijuana until now ;-)
    I've never defended anyone, who exclusively used marijuana, of breaking and entering or anything remotely like that.  I'm not aware of any friends who have, either.  
    I don't use it but I've become convinced that alcohol is a far more dangerous drug than pot and that keeping it illegal makes it much, much easier for kids to obtain harder drugs.  If you know the pot guy, you probably know the coke guy, etc.  These silly kids always getting busted for possession wouldn't know where to begin (re: obtaining E, cocaine, ketamine) if they could buy phillip morris doobies.  The market could actually do us a big, big favor here.        

    Honestly, (none / 0) (#42)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 04:47:08 PM EST
    do you really think if pot was legal kids wouldn't know where to get harder drugs if they wanted them?



    Yes (none / 0) (#46)
    by Claw on Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 07:37:39 AM EST
    Honestly.  Legalizing pot would make it much more difficult to get hard drugs.  Excluding meth, which kids are learning how to make, kids who buy pot are plugged into a system that allows them much closer contact with people they would otherwise never interact with.  Does knowing how to score booze as a 16 year old make you capable of getting coke?  No.  Cigarettes at 14?  No.  Pot?  In many cases, yes.  
    We've created a fantastic model for drug dealers--Get a highschooler who seems cool and enterprising (and is also interested in free weed) to start selling pot, and let him/her know that harder things are available.  I've heard this referred to as "recruiting a white face."  The newly recruited kid, having watched too many movies, thinks it's really cool that he knows such super badasses, and advertises this fact to his friends.  They buy, try, and sell [insert dangerous drug here], get busted, and then come see me.  
    So yes, especially in big cities, it would be much, much harder if we lumped smoking pot in with beer and cigarrettes as legal, socially acceptable ways of "relaxing."  

    I think you're completely mistaken. (none / 0) (#47)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 09:54:59 AM EST
    If pot were legalized the guy to score coke from in HS would still the JV second baseman sitting two seats behind you in Alegebra 2 class.

    I think (none / 0) (#48)
    by Claw on Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 10:33:38 AM EST
    I'm not mistaken based on experience handling cases like this.  The JV kid gets recruited because he wants to buy pot.  The guy he buys pot from also sells coke.  If the kid can just go down to the gas station and get pot then it is much, much harder to make contact with him.  This is mostly a big(er) city model, maybe in small towns we've got plenty of Algebra 2 kingpins.  I kind of doubt it.

    Some kids/people want to do drugs. (none / 0) (#49)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 12:59:58 PM EST
    Making pot legal will not make coke, shrooms, acid, etc., less enjoyable.

    Where there is demand there will be supply, in my experience.


    The Canadians have a dangerous offender (none / 0) (#8)
    by JSN on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 10:47:34 AM EST
    class (persons who have repeatedly committed violent crimes) who are a severe threat to public safety. But they recognize that the threat can diminish with age and the classification is reviewed periodically so there is a possibility they could be released on parole if the threat is sufficiently small. In our country we lock up repeat offenders of all offense types for a long time (or for life in states with a three strikes law).

    A big problem with jails is that to fail safely you keep people in jail longer than is necessary. The mechanism used is excessive bail and the poor suffer the most because of this practice. If a judge is elected the chances are they will tend to fail safely.

    Liptak did an outstanding job of presenting a brief statistical history of incarceration in the US.

    Well, don't forget... (none / 0) (#10)
    by jccamp on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 11:23:28 AM EST
    "The notion that potential burglar, who serves an average of 16 months if convicted in the U.S., would be more inclined to commit burglaries if the average were only 5 months, as it is in Canada, is ridiculous."

    What is ignored in this rather incomplete conclusion is that the burglar population (replace with robber, murderer, rapist, etc) is a very small part of the general population. If the average burglar commits 5 burglaries a week (or 2 robberies, .25 sexual battery, etc) for instance, then the additional 11 months imprisonment prevents something like 220 burglaries. (or 88 robberies, or 11 rapes). If one forgets any concept of prison except for a place to warehouse dangerous people away from the rest of society, then long sentences equate to less crime committed against the rest of us.

    I understand the distinction between violent crimes and (so-called) property crimes - like burglary - but if you're less than wealthy, working multiple jobs while trying to raise children to respect the law, and some addict breaks in and steals the TV and the toaster oven, 5 months doesn't sound like very much.

    burglary is rarer in the US than Europe. (none / 0) (#13)
    by Salo on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 11:53:34 AM EST
    It's not a top crime by any means in the US.

    Prosecutors (none / 0) (#11)
    by AnninCA on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 11:36:16 AM EST
    must respect the power of the State.  I have been alarmed at the DA offices which have aggressively pursued policies of over-prosecuting to pander to the right.

    I can understand the political give-and-take up to a point.  If you're in a conservative wave, only an idiot doesn't prosecute vigorously.

    But cases such as we saw with Cynthia Sommers in San Diego clearly show that grand-standing is a huge factor.

    That prosecutor KNEW that her science was tainted.  She'd been told by the top arsenic specialist in the country that the numbers didn't add up, weren't scientifically possible.

    She pursued the case aggressively in spite of knowing this.  She destroyed this woman.


    Because she wanted a win, because the case involved salacious details she knew it would be picked up by the press (and it was).

    Now, she is hiding.  She didn't even admit that she was wrong.

    This type of slant within our DA offices is absolutely political.

    I'm so glad to see the tide turning.  The state DA MUST be ethical.  They have the obvious advantage of being viewed as more credible.  The weak drug cases?  They don't belong in prison.

    Alas, the only thing that is changing this is the reality that we can't lock everyone up.  Prison space is now at a premium.

    Ridiculous.  Totally unnecessary crisis that has been created to promote personal careers.

    This seems like a stretch, at best: (none / 0) (#24)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:39:45 PM EST
    Potential criminals might be deterred by the risk of being caught, but there's no evidence that they factor the potential length of sentence into their decision-making about whether to commit a crime.
    If we changed the consequences of, say, grand theft auto to a minor traffic ticket instead of handcuffs, bail, trial, prison, etc., does anyone really believe that auto theft rates would not rise?

    Sure (none / 0) (#25)
    by Steve M on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 12:53:17 PM EST
    But no one is talking about a slap on the wrist.  Most people who are open to being deterred will be deterred by the knowledge that they'll go away for years if they get caught; adding another 20 years onto that sentence only deters a few additional people, at a substantial cost.

    Seriously? (none / 0) (#30)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 01:32:16 PM EST
    Adding 20 years to the consequences a particular crime will incur will only deter a few additional people? That seems counterintuitive.

    Here's a recent study:

    Using Sentence Enhancements to Distinguish Between Deterrence and Incapacitation

    Daniel Kessler

    Stanford University and National Bureau of Economic Research

    Steven D. Levitt

    University of Chicago and American Bar Foundation

    Abstract: Differentiating empirically between deterrence and incapacitation is difficult since both are a function of expected punishment.

    In this article we demonstrate that the introduction of sentence enhancements provides a direct means of measuring deterrence.

    Because the criminal would have been sentenced to prison even without the law change, there is no additional incapacitation effect from the sentence enhancement in the short run.

    Therefore, any immediate decrease in crime must be due to deterrence.

    We test the model using California's Proposition 8, which imposed sentence enhancements for a selected group of crimes.

    Proposition 8 appears to reduce eligible crimes by 4 percent in the year following its passage and 8 percent 3 years after passage. These immediate effects are consistent with deterrence.

    The impact of the law continues to increase 5-7 years after its passage, suggesting that incapacitation may be important as well.

    And, (none / 0) (#31)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 01:56:29 PM EST
    can you explain the apparent contradiction between your positions that increasing the consequences of committing a crime will have no deterrent effect on criminals, but increasing the consequences of nuking Israel will have a deterrent effect on Iran?

    Heh (none / 0) (#32)
    by Steve M on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 02:05:02 PM EST
    That sound you hear is the sound of you completely making up my position out of thin air.  In fact, you are mischaracterizing me with respect to both issues.

    I won't drag the Iran issue into this thread, but I will note that I would never take the nonsensical position that increasing the severity of punishment has no deterrent effect whatsoever.  Obviously there is always going to be some impact at the margins.  My point was that the additional deterrent effect is vastly outweighed by the additional costs associated with a lengthier period of incarceration.

    I stand by my position that there are very few people who are willing to risk being put away for one year but not for two, but I agree that there are surely at least some people in this category.


    Fair enough. (none / 0) (#33)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 02:13:59 PM EST
    Your positions are more nuanced than my summaries of your positions.

    With that in mind I then presume that in general you agree with me that this similarly non-nuanced statement is a stretch, which was my main point:

    Potential criminals might be deterred by the risk of being caught, but there's no evidence that they factor the potential length of sentence into their decision-making about whether to commit a crime.

    Yes (none / 0) (#37)
    by Steve M on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 02:52:55 PM EST
    Obviously we would always expect SOME degree of added deterrence.  The flaw in the "tough on crime" argument is treating added deterrence as an unalloyed good, not in assuming the existence of added deterrence in the first place.

    an anecdote for the legalize folks (none / 0) (#35)
    by boredmpa on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 02:31:26 PM EST
    I live in San Francisco, in a ghetto area.  When I leave my apartment during certain seasons to go to the grocery store I have a 15% chance of encountering strong pot smells on the way (for 30 feet or so) and a 40% chance of just smelling it on the wind.  

    Now, that's fine in san francisco.  BUT, I can get fired or not hired by the GAO (i'm in their selection process) or by SFO airport (applying to their mgmt program) for having drugs in my system.  So here I am, holding my breath twice a week cause i'm walking behind someone smoking a joint (across from the police station!) just to apply to SFO (owned by SF) where I can get fired if I inhale too much pot while living in the ghetto. /eyeroll

    Dude.... (none / 0) (#38)
    by kdog on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 03:06:52 PM EST
    Has there ever been one confirmed case where someone failed a drug test because of second hand reefer smoke?  I seriously doubt it.

    There was that Canadian snowboarder who claimed he failed becuase of his buddies blazing around him, but I think he was full of soup, trying desperatley to save his hard earned Olympic medal.

    Besides, if you're really nervous head to GNC for a cleanser.  I smoke most everyday and have never failed a drug test, thanks to the fine folks at GNC:)


    Funny Anecdote.... (none / 0) (#39)
    by kdog on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 03:27:03 PM EST
    I thought I made a pretty good funny today....

    I'm in the plumbing business, a drug testing facility calls in needing a flush valve that cannot be flushed by the user of the toilet.  Why the drug testers can't let the drug testees flush, I have no idea.

    So I recommend an electronic flush valve that can only be actuated by a remote control module , instead of the usual handle or electronic sensor on the flush valve. Typically they are used in prisons...and they're quite pricey.

    Anyway, the punchline....when the guy balks at the price of this system, I couldn't help myself.  I said "What, only you guys can make money in the tyranny business?"

    Either he didn't get the joke or he simply wasn't amused....but it made my day:)


    it can't be confirmed (none / 0) (#43)
    by boredmpa on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 04:48:29 PM EST
    that's the problem.  you can't prove it was second hand (and from a risk perspective the feds dont care, SFO on the other hand could face a lawsuit).

    unlike harder drugs, pot stays in your system--i don't know how effective GNC stuff would be and it would raise the risk profile if anything was off. Besides, they'll probably take hair (and friggin armpit hair at that) for a sample and look at that.  

    If I was applying for a polygraph position i'd actually be less worried about the issue because i'd pass the poly.  


    Hair tests are beat-able too..... (none / 0) (#50)
    by kdog on Thu Apr 24, 2008 at 03:52:26 PM EST
    With a special shampoo....that worked for me too.

    Not at all pleasant, every hair on my body smelled like a Dow Chemical factory...but tyrannical times call for desperate measures:)

    Like I always say...I long for the day when a man is not judged on the contents of his urine (or strands of hair)...but on the content of his chracter.


    Think of the rising prison population... (none / 0) (#44)
    by white n az on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 05:39:15 PM EST
    as a military recruiting opportunity.

    of course with the way the price of food is going, it may be the only way to feed yourself

    THank you (none / 0) (#45)
    by bjorn on Wed Apr 23, 2008 at 06:48:26 PM EST
    I joined the Talk Left community because I was looking for a fun and interesting place to connect with other Clinton supporters.  But I have come to realize the "politics of crime" posts are endlessly fascinating.