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The consequences of the incarceration explosion of the 1980s and 1990s in the united states

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. I In there were fewer thaninmates in our state and federal prisons. By the end of we were approaching 1.

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. To put the figure of 1. Our overall national population has grown, too, of course, but the prison population has grown much faster: During the entire period from the end of World War II to the early s, the nation's prison incarceration rate--the number of inmates in state and federal prisons perpopulation--fluctuated in a narrow band between a low of 93 in and a high of in By it had reached perBear 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 to alone--about 80,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 s. 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 mids 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 the consequences of the incarceration explosion of the 1980s and 1990s in the united states this dramatic increase: Less discussed, but even more startling, is the enormous increase in the number of Hispanic prisoners, which has more than quintupled since alone.

Equally dramatic changes have taken place for women. In there were slightly more than 5, women in state and federal prisons across the United States.

By there were nearly 75,a thirteenfold increase. For most of the period after World War II, the female incarceration rate hovered at around 8 per ,; it did not reach double digits until Today it is 51 perWomen'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 s and early s.

At current rates of increase, there will be more women in America's prisons in the year than there were inmates of both sexes in 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 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.

39% of Prisoners Should Not Be in Prison

The National Research Council calculated in that the average prison time served per violent crime in the United States roughly tripled between and 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.

II 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. Inthe most recent year we can use for comparative purposes, the overall incarceration rate for the United States was perpopulation, including local jails but not juvenile institutions.

Around the world, the only country with a higher rate was Russia, at perSeveral other countries of the former Soviet bloc also had high rates perin Estonia, for example, and in Romania--as did, among others, Singapore and South Africa But most industrial democracies clustered far below us, at around 55 to per , with a few--notably Japan, at 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 percent--from the early s to the mids. Between andthe 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 s, 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.

  • And they also removed some of the rungs on our already wobbly ladders out of poverty;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • At the same time, violent crime by older adults was stable and in some places declining.

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 mids, when, according to an analysis by David Farrington of Cambridge University and Patrick Langan of the U. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the likelihood of someone found guilty of burglary going behind bars was 40 percent in England and Wales the consequences of the incarceration explosion of the 1980s and 1990s in the united states 74 percent in the United States.

The difference is even greater now, after many years of tougher treatment of property offenders in the U. Robbery presents a somewhat more complex picture. In the mids, 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.

Infor 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. 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 s 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 mids, 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: A similar pattern holds for drug offenders, the fastest-growing segment of the American prison population since the mids.

In 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 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.