Race and Prisons

Cato Unbound has a fascinating debate between four academics about race and prison structure. (The Cato Unbound debates, archived in the sidebar, are always interesting.) Glenn Loury, leads off with A Nation Of Jailers talking about the high rate of black imprisonment as evidence of racism, while Lott and James “Broken Windows” Wilson respond with most black crime is committed against black people, so punishing it is actually providing much needed services to African-Americans. (They largely side-step the notion of The War On Drugs, which is telling).

I’ve been following it because Bruce Western, one of my favorite Sociologists, drops the knowledge bomb (my underline):

While 40 percent of the racial disparity in incarceration is not due to crime but other factors, surely mass incarceration contributed to the tremendous decline in crime through the 1990s. Indeed, the 1990s crime decline produced a great improvement in public safety. From 1993 to 2001, the violent crime rate was halved, murder rates in big cities like New York and Los Angeles fell by half or more, and this progress in social well-being was recorded by rich and poor alike. I analyzed crime rates in this period and found that rising prison populations did reduce crime, but not by much. The growth in state imprisonment accounted for 2 to 5 percent of the decline in serious crime — one-tenth of the crime drop from 1993 to 2001. The remaining nine-tenths was due to things like the increasing size of local police forces, the pacification of the drug trade following the crack epidemic of the early 1990s, and the role of local factors which resist a general explanation.

But to acknowledge that the prison boom reduced crime is not to say that it was worth it. The modest decline in serious crime over an eight-year period was purchased for $53 billion in additional correctional spending and half a million new prison inmates. If we add the lost earnings of prisoners, the family disruption, and the community instability produced by mass incarceration, a steep price was paid for a small improvement in public safety. What’s more, nearby examples show that crime has been controlled without large increases in imprisonment. Violent crime in Canada, for example, also declined greatly through the 1990s, but Canadian incarceration rates actually fell from 1991 to 1999. New York maintained very low crime rates through the 2000s, but it is one of the few states that significantly cut its prison population over the last decade (see New York’s 2007 Crimestat Report, p. 38 [pdf]). Though large increases in imprisonment do reduce crime a little, the social cost is high and less punitive approaches have been equally successful.

All this analysis considers only the short-term reductions in crime produced by imprisonment. Because of the social costs of punishment — in the lost earnings and broken families of ex-prisoners — the seeds of recidivism are sown by incarceration itself. Ex-prisoners, without jobs or family ties, are more likely to re-offend. More fundamentally, the poor and minority communities that are disparately policed and punished come to view law enforcement, the courts, and the jails with suspicion and not as sources of legitimate order and support. We have few estimates of how much distrust in criminal justice institutions increases crime, though the effects may be very large.

The evidence I’ve reviewed indicates that mass incarceration has produced a public safety that is short-term, expensive, and vulnerable to reversal. Mass incarceration deepens inequalities in economic opportunities and family life, and receives little positive support from the communities it regulates most closely. The failure of the system is due exactly to the kind of social exclusion that Glenn Loury described.

Great stuff. You should read it all.

If I did it all over again, I’d be a sociologist.

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