Assessing Prison Experiment

excerpted from the book

Crime and Punishment in America

Why solutions to America's most stubborn social crisis have not worked - and what will

by Elliott Currie

Henry Holt, 1998, paper


Over the past twenty-five years, the United States has built the largest prison system in the world. But despite a recent downturn in the crime rate, we remain far and away the most violent advanced industrial society on earth.

By the early 1990s, 29 percent of black men could expect to spend some time in a state or federal prison during their lifetime. Yet young black men in the United States were more than one hundred times as likely to die by violence as young men in Britain or France. In California, the prison population has jumped seven-fold in less than two decades, and a shoplifter with two previous convictions for burglary can be sent to prison for life. But in 1997, four out of ten residents of the city of Los Angeles reported that they personally knew someone who had been killed or seriously injured in a violent attack. We imprison our citizens at roughly six times the English rate. But in 1995, there were more homicides in Los Angeles, a city of about 3.5 million people, than in all of England and Wales, with 50 million.

It isn't surprising, therefore, that Americans continue to put violent crime at the top of their list of concerns. America is not "winning the war" on crime (as a Time magazine cover breathlessly exclaimed in 1995). While guarded optimism may be in order, complacency is not. And there is no guarantee that the respite we are now enjoying will last.

Faced with these realities, many Americans-politicians, commentators, and voters-are calling for still more prisons, longer sentences, and harsher treatment of juvenile offenders. These prescriptions are based on a widely accepted story about crime and punishment in America. The specifics may vary, but the basic argument is remarkably consistent. It goes something like this: the reason violent crime continues to plague us is that our criminal justice system is far too lenient with criminals. Contrary to the claims of liberal do-gooders and "elite" experts, prison "works"; locking up more people for longer terms, the theory runs, cuts crime dramatically, and indeed the reason crime has fallen in the past few years is that we have finally begun to put more criminals behind bars. But we haven't gone nearly far enough. A weak justice system lets most criminals-even known, repeat violent offenders-off too easily, and puts them back on the streets to rob, rape, and murder with impunity. (Bob Dole, in his 1996 presidential campaign, described the American criminal justice system as a "liberal-leaning laboratory of leniency'; Bill Clinton, though he did not echo the charge, conspicuously failed to challenge it.)

The answer, from this perspective, is simple: we must greatly increase the number of people behind bars, and we should make life harder for them while they are there. (The National Rifle Association says we need 250,000 new prison cells to "build our way out of the crime problem": others say we should double the present prison population.) This means cracking down especially hard on juvenile offenders, who are now coddled by a justice system that clings to a discredited belief in rehabilitation. Though critics may object that these measures would be hugely expensive, they would actually save vast amounts of money, we're told, by reducing crime.

There are still misguided souls, left over from the 1960s, who believe we would be better off investing more resources in crime prevention programs. But social programs designed to prevent crime or delinquency don't work, or at best work only marginally; most of them are nothing more than political "pork." And efforts to fight crime by attacking poverty or improving opportunities for the disadvantaged, once a staple of criminological wisdom, have if anything made the crime problem worse, not better. If crime can be said to have causes at all, they are, it's argued, moral and individual, not social and economic; and government is powerless to do much about them.

Every one of these assertions .. is either flatly wrong or, at best, enormously misleading. Yet they are repeated over and over again, in legislative halls, courtrooms, magazine articles, newspaper columns, and books. They provide the intellectual underpinning for an approach to crime and punishment that threatens to bankrupt us both fiscally and morally while demonstrably failing to protect us from the violence that continues to haunt our collective experience. And they provide the justification for increasingly harsh punishments designed to symbolize our resolve to get tough on criminals: the return of chain gangs and menial, backbreaking labor in the prisons; the proliferation of "three strikes and you're out" laws; proposals to try juvenile offenders as adults before they even reach their teens. There is no evidence whatever that any of these measures will reduce violent crime. But they have raced through our legislatures like wildfire.

Crime control itself has become a big business, especially in some states, where the explosion of prison populations in recent years has created a large and politically potent constituency of those whose jobs and status depend on yet further expansion.

Our spectacular investment in punishment isn't an isolated development but part of a larger vision of society-a vision we have been pursuing in the United States, with only modest deviations, for more than a quarter century. America's punitive and reactive response to crime is an integral part of the new social Darwinism, the criminal justice counterpart of an increasingly harsh attack on living standards and social supports, especially for the poor, often justified in the name of "personal responsibility" and the "free market." To acknowledge that our crime policies have failed to bring a reasonable degree of safety to our streets and homes would call into question not just the crime policies themselves but the success-indeed the humanity-of the vision as a whole.

If we look squarely at the present state of crime and punishment in America, in short, it is difficult to avoid the recognition that something is terribly wrong; that a society that incarcerates such a vast and rapidly growing part of its population-but still suffers the worst violent crime in the industrial world-is a society in trouble, one that, in a profound sense, has lost its bearings. That is one reason why the myths are so important, and why there is today a small industry that has assiduously and effectively promoted them, often drowning out other voices and obscuring other views.

Over the past twenty-five years we have tried, with increasing desperation, to use our criminal justice system to hold together the social fabric with one hand while with our other hand, are busily ripping it apart. The prison has become our first line of defense against the consequences of social policies that have brought increasing deprivation and demoralization to growing numbers of children, families, and communities... powerful voices are calling for even harsher policies toward the poor and the young. The inevitable accompaniment will be a demand for still more prisons, justified on the ground of stubbornly persistent crime. It is a self-fulfilling stance, and it will bring us a society we should not want-one that would have been unrecognizable to the citizens of an earlier, more humane and optimistic America: a society in which a permanent state of social disintegration is held in check only by the creation of a swollen apparatus of confinement and control that has no counterpart in our own history or in any other industrial democracy.

Assessing the Prison Experiment

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 re;ease. 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.

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.

According to [criminologist James Lynch, of American University], the proportion of American drug offenders sentenced to over ten years was more than triple that in England and Wales.

America appears to be more inclined than England to imprison first-time offenders.

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.

The prison has become a looming presence in our society to an extent unparalleled 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.

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.

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 ...

During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of studies attempted to calculate the potential incapacitation effect of large increases in imprisonment. The results were not encouraging: a typical estimate was that doubling the prison population might reduce serious reported crimes by 10 percent-somewhat more in the case of burglaries and robberies, less for homicides and rapes. And what is startlingly clear today is that if anything the research erred on the optimistic side. The incarceration rate has risen much more than anyone imagined. But there has been no overall decrease in serious criminal violence, and there have been sharp increases in many places-including many of the places that incarcerated the most or increased their rates of imprisonment the fastest. The national incarceration rate doubled between 1985 and 1995 alone, and every major reported violent crime increased-driven upward by the horrifying surge in youth violence, which turned our cities into killing fields for the young and poor just when more and more of the young and poor were already behind bars;

... the fact that the offenders caught and imprisoned represent only a fraction of a much larger "pool" of offenders, most of whom are not caught, greatly limits incapacitation's effect on crime rates. In addition, our failure to match the increasing rates of imprisonment with corresponding increases in programs to reintegrate offenders into productive life means that we are steadily producing ever-larger armies of ex-offenders whose chances of success in the legitimate world have been diminished by their prison experience. We are "incapacitating" them in the traditional sense of the word-reducing their capacity to function normally- with altogether predictable results.

But there is an even more profound reason for the limited impact of the vast increases in imprisonment: they coincided with a sharp deterioration in the social conditions of the people and communities most at risk of violent crime.

Thus, while we were busily jamming our prisons to the rafters with young, poor men, we were simultaneously generating the fastest rise in income inequality in recent history. We were tolerating the descent of several million Americans, most of them children, into poverty ...

We were, in effect, using the prisons to contain a growing social crisis concentrated in the bottom quarter of our population. The prisons became, in a very real sense, a substitute for the more constructive social policies we were avoiding. A growing prison system was what we had instead of an antipoverty policy, instead of an employment policy, instead of a comprehensive drug-treatment or mental health policy. Or, to put it even more starkly, the prison became our employment policy, our drug policy, our mental health policy, in the vacuum left by the absence of more constructive efforts.

This is not just a metaphor. The role of the prison as a default "solution" to many American social problems is apparent when we juxtapose some common statistics that are rarely viewed in combination. We've seen, for example, that by the end of 1996 there were almost 1.7 million inmates-mostly poor and male-confined in American jails and prisons. Officially, those inmates are not counted as part of the country's labor force, and accordingly they are also not counted as unemployed. If they were, our official jobless rate would be much higher, and our much-vaunted record of controlling unemployment, as compared with other countries, would look considerably less impressive. Thus, in 1996 there was an average of about 3.9 million men officially unemployed in the United States, and about 1.1 million in state or federal prison. Adding the imprisoned to the officially unemployed would boost the male unemployment rate in that year by more than a fourth, from 5.4 to 6.9 percent. And that national average obscures the social implications of the huge increases in incarceration in some states. In Texas, there were about 120,000 men in prison in 1995, and 300,000 officially unemployed. Adding the imprisoned to the jobless count raises the state's male unemployment rate by well over a third, from 5.6 to 7.8 percent. If we conduct the same exercise for black men, the figures are even more thought-provoking. In 1995, there were 762,000 black men officially counted as unemployed, and another 511,000 in state or federal prison. Combining these numbers raises the jobless rate for black men by two-thirds, from just under 11 to almost 18 percent.

Consider also the growing role of the jails and prisons as a de facto alternative to a functioning system of mental health care. In California, an estimated 8 to 20 percent of state prison inmates and 7 to 15 percent of jail inmates are seriously mentally ill. Research shows, moreover, that the vast majority of the mentally ill who go behind bars are not being treated by the mental health system at the time of their arrest; for many, the criminal justice system is likely to be the first place they receive serious attention or even medication. The number of seriously mentally ill inmates in the jails and prisons may be twice that in state mental hospitals on any given day. In the San Diego County jail, 14 percent of male and 25 percent of female inmates were on psychiatric medication in the mid-1990s: The Los Angeles County jail system, where over 3,000 of the more than 20,000 inmates were receiving psychiatric services, is now said to be the largest mental institution in the United States-and also, according to some accounts, the largest homeless shelter.

Prison, then, has increasingly become America's social agency .t of first resort for coping with the deepening problems of a society in perennial crisis.

The money spent on prisons in the 1980s and 1990s, then, was money taken from the parts of the public sector that educate, train, socialize, treat, nurture, and house the population-particularly the children of the poor.

By the early l990s ... skewed priorities had brought us what was arguably the worst of all possible worlds when it came to crime and punishment. We had attained a level of violent crime that, in some places, was the highest in this century and that threatened to destroy the social fabric of many American communities. At the same time, we had created a bloated penal system whose uncontrolled growth had helped deprive our most vulnerable communities of urgently needed social investment. It seemed painfully clear to most who studied these problems that the experiment was not working.

Crime and Punishment in America

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