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Mass incarceration: A new theory for why so many Americans are in prison (slate.com)
115 points by po on Oct 2, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 180 comments



>> The fact of the matter is in today’s state prisons, which hold about 90 percent of all of our prisoners, only 17 percent of the inmates are there primarily for drug charges. And about two-thirds are there for either property or violent crimes.

Hmmm. This is unsatisfying. How many are there for crimes that were committed to feed drug habits? How many for crimes related to but not directly involving drugs (turf wars, drug-money related offences etc)?

Sure, these are crimes and we should definitely still bring people committing these to justice, but I wonder how many just would not have happened without the WoD?

Clearly it's not the whole picture, but it might be a little more complex than the article makes out.


> Hmmm. This is unsatisfying.

It's unsatisfying not because it's wrong, but because it replaces a tidy narrative, (a narrative which suggests a public policy many of us would like to support) with "it's complicated". I think you have the picture reversed -- the article is saying the problem is nuanced and complex when we'd rather believe it was simply the war on drugs.


>> I think you have the picture reversed -- the article is saying the problem is nuanced and complex when we'd rather believe it was simply the war on drugs.

I disagree. I think it's unsatisfying because it naively minimises the wider effects of the WoD.

I'm not American so I don't really have a vested interest in your prison population and why it's there, I only really know that compared to your population size it's huge.

I am quite pedantic though, and it looked to me like firstly it wasn't complete in its reasoning and secondly like 300K people out of 1.7M is still a very significant amount.


Rayiner's comment seems like a strong rebuttal to this:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10319918


It doesn't have a strong rebuttal, because it doesn't actually have any exact figures.

It has trends which suggest it's of little relevance, sure, but nothing particularly concrete. For all we know the homicide rate in the mid 80s (for example) may have dropped to a historic low without the WoD.


Doesn't that require you to argue that transitioning from "no war on drugs" to "war on drugs" back to "no war on drugs" would reduce the murder rate, lower than it was before the war on drugs?

If not, can you help me understand why?


>> If not, can you help me understand why?

Not right now, drunk.


I'LL ALLOW IT.


I disagree w/your latter assertion: the interviewee basically claimed that ending the war on drugs would, at most, reduce the prison population by 17%.

When you have a truly complex problem, the way to solve it is to pick it apart into simpler parts. If we start with ending the war on drugs, and the prison pop only goes down 17%, we can move on to the next reform.


What I wonder is how many people were originally detained/investigated because of the WoD, but arrested/prosecuted for the non-drug offenses. (i.e. resisting, gambling, tax evasion, etc.)

Unless you know why these people were in front of the cops to begin with, you can't speak to whether any given policy change will or won't affect arrest or imprisonment rates.

e.g. Stop-and-Frisk is a War on Terror policy, but regularly results in weapons and drug charges. Are the people ultimately sentenced for those offenses in prison because of weapon or drug laws, or anti-terror laws?


Stop and Frisk is not a war on terror policy. It's a "New York used to be Gotham City in the 1990's"-era policy.


Fair enough. Yet the question remains: can you meaningfully lower arrests/convictions that resulted from stop-and-frisk, by changing the laws regarding the particular charges that are brought? If it's about a 'fishing expedition', then decriminalizing marijuana might dramatically drop drug charges, but not move net arrests much, as officers simply find something else.


NY was Gotham City. Why is there so much animosity for the 'Broken Windows' policy when it clearly worked?


Because cities without New York's policies saw the same drop in crime?


How about quality of life???

Rudy Giuliani got rid of all the annoying squeegee men that loved to shake down vehicular traffic. But now ... they're baaackkk "terrorizing city streets"!

http://nypost.com/2014/08/07/squeegee-men-are-back-and-terro... http://nypost.com/2015/07/19/squeegee-man-is-citys-latest-bl... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squeegee_man


Chicago?


The crime rate in Chicago dropped sharply. Chicago did not employ "broken windows" policing.


I'm guessing you're talking about the recent spike in shootings? That spike has a long way to go to reach the peaks of the 70s and 90s.


Because there is no proof that 'Broken Windows' worked. Crime has declined since the 90s in all major American cities: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-imprisoners-dilemma/


Additionally, I don't like the percent increases on absolute numbers. I feel like some normalized data (either per capita, or per capita in specific metropolitan areas) would be very helpful.

Ie. Fake example, The crime in San Francisco shot up by 400% - woah! So much more crime. The population in San Francisco also shot up by 10,000%. Oh, so you're telling me that the ratio of criminals to non-criminals dropped by 95%?


Ps. I don't know why I expect a better analysis from this article since it's in Slate...


Having seen the numbers, they are actually referring to the crime rate, and not raw crimes.


Your cognitive bias is showing. Common sense should tell you that a 400% increase is outstripping population growth, but here are the numbers: US population went from 183M to 252M during that period.


>> Ie. Fake example


Or cases where an initial arrest for something non-violent (such as drugs) resulted in a drastic change in life course, such as losing their job and making it very hard to find legal work, after which (combined with what they learned in prison the first time) resulted in them turning to property/violent crimes?


I thought the same thing and I totally agree that this should be covered. Thinking more about it though, the media has kinda clung to The War on Drugs any time they need to fill airtime and any time it comes up, they're pretty hand wavy about the underlying statistics. If someone had hard data on this that clearly supported WoD accusation, I feel like I would have seen it already.


I'd guess most of these records are open to the public. Maybe it would be possible to use some AI to read the records, and collect better data?


I'm not sure why you'd be downvoted for saying that, it's not objectionable...

But it might miss the point. Someone convicted of burglary may have been burgling to get money for their addiction. That may or may not be recorded. Although you might be right, maybe that sort of stuff is routinely recorded. I have no idea!



I'd guess if they have court transcripts, or some kind of description in a plea deal, it's possible it was mentioned. That might be valuable data, but having a person scrape through that data would take ages.

I too am confused why I was down-voted, but i guess you can't please everyone :\


Don't need an AI, just use a statistically valid random sample, then use human intelligence to analyze that smaller data set.


>only 17 percent of the inmates are there primarily for drug charges.

This is either false or misleading because of how it is worded. The percentage of people serving time in state prison for drug offenses is ~53%

http://www.drugwarfacts.org/cms/Prisons_and_Drugs#sthash.eHL...


You're reading that source wrong (understandable because the wording is awkward). 53% is for violent crime.


From your source: Almost 16% of state prisoners were convicted drug offenders (208,000 inmates), including 24% of all females in state prison (22,000 inmates) and 15% of all males in state prison (186,000 inmates).


>How many are there for crimes that were committed to feed drug habits?

Legalizing drugs will not make them free, and they will still lead to addiction.


>> Legalizing drugs will not make them free, and they will still lead to addiction.

Indeed they will. But if addicts have easier access to medically supervised maintenance doses (for instance), without risking jail time, then there may be less crime committed to feed these habits. Stuff I've seen has suggested that (for instance) when heroin users know where their next hit is coming from (the clinic) they are better able to handle their addiction and able to make some progress in the rest of life (hold down a job, etc).

I'm not saying I definitely have all the answers, the picture is complex.


>when heroin users know where their next hit is coming from (the clinic) they are better able to handle their addiction and able to make some progress in the rest of life (hold down a job, etc).

That's extremely wishful thinking.

We currently have abundant access to alcohol and alcoholism is still a problem.


On the other hand, alcohol is actively pushed and widely accepted within our society. It's extremely difficult to avoid if you have a problem with it, and it's also extremely easy to develop a problem with through the numerous situations in which you are expected to consume or have access to it. Supply of substance from a clinic allows you to fulfil the needs of the existing population, without having the problem of vendors pushing the substance onto new users. ( One would hope.. )


>> That's extremely wishful thinking.

It's something I've read about coming out of the Swiss model, which medicalises heroin addiction rather than criminalising it.

I'm not going to hunt for references right now so I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.


Legalizing drugs are one thing (though 80-90% of Americans still oppose legalization for stuff like heroin). Spending non-prison public dollars on peoples' heroin addiction (while potentially a good idea), will never happen in the U.S. before the heat death of the universe.


The cost of medical heroin to feed the typical daily consumption of heroin for an addict costs in the $10-$20 range, as far as I remember. We know the costs because because heroin is manufactured and regularly prescribed as a pain killer in a number of countries, e.g. in the UK you sometime get diamorphine (heroin) prescriptions for post-operative pain.

In other words, even if it was not paid for, but just made available on prescription, chances are substantial proportion of users would be able to afford to maintain their addiction without much, if any, crime.


>> Spending non-prison public dollars on peoples' heroin addiction (while potentially a good idea), will never happen in the U.S. before the heat death of the universe.

Oh can you imagine the horror!

"Our tax dollars are going on keeping them no-good junkies in smack! Not on my watch!"

Even if it was the best thing for law and order, for society, for everyone.... yeah I know, it'll just never fly.


You would still have non-profits willing to provide treatment, even if the government is unable to do anything.


When drugs are legalized, addicts have better access to treatments and counseling and the stigma is lowered so they can be more open about their addiction.


Legalizing alcohol didn't make it free, but it sure did help with the associated violence made infamous during Prohibition.


That's the distributors/manufacturers, we are talking about the consumers.


And your point?


> Legalizing drugs will not make them free

It will make them much cheaper and thus have about the same affect.


The problem with the "drug war causes violent crime" theory is the timeline. Here is a graph of U.S. violent crime rate from 1960: http://www.newgeography.com/files/cox-crime-3.png. Here is a graph of just homicide rate since 1900: http://madeinamericathebook.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/homi.... Violent crime was steady up to about 1960 then started spiking up in the 1960's until about 1995. The homicide rate at its peak in the 1990's was only about 25% higher than what it was in 1900, long before prohibition or the drug war.

The modern controlled substances act was passed in 1970, and drug war spending started ramping up through the 1970's, and didn't really get going until the second half of the 1980's: http://blurbrain.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/drugs-vs-spe....

So what does the data tell us? Crime started spiking up about 10 years before the drug war even started. The big jump in drug war spending in the 1980's happened after two decades of rising crime, when crime rates were already near their peak. So if anything, the federal drug war (or peoples' appetite to wage it) seems to be a reaction to rising crime, rather than a cause.

Now, you could also say rising crime was the result of prohibition itself, not just the drug war per se. But narcotics began to be heavily regulated and effectively banned in 1915: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/cu/cu8.h....

Now, compare crime rate to incarceration rate and the timeline of the drug war: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/48/U.S._inc.... The incarceration rate is basically flat until 1975. By that time violent crime had increased by over 2.5x. The mind-blowing thing is that our incarceration rate doesn't catch up to our crime rate until after 1995! I.e. even though our incarceration rate quadruples from 1950 to 1995, in that time violent crime more than quadruples.

It's only after the big drop in crime in the late 1990's that our incarceration rate started to become disproportionate to our violent crime rate.


The problem with the article is that the professor doesn't just argue the points you made, but suggests we shouldn't advocate for ending the drug war or reducing sentencing:

But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place.

"The reason it’s important to get it right is that if we’re trying to reduce the prison population, we want to make sure we do it correctly—and if you focus on the wrong thing, you won’t solve the problem. So if you think it’s the war on drugs, you might think, ‘OK, if we just decriminalize drugs, that will solve the problem.’ And, you know, it’s true that if we shift away from punishment to treatment that could be a huge improvement. But just letting people out of prison—decarcerating drug offenders—will not reduce the prison population by as much as people think. If you released every person in prison on a drug charge today, our state prison population would drop from about 1.5 million to 1.2 million. So we’d still be the world’s largest incarcerating country; we’d still have an enormous prison population.

And if we focused on cutting back sentence lengths, maybe that would weaken DAs’ bargaining power at plea bargaining, but since people aren’t serving the massively long sentences anyway, it probably won’t have that big an effect on prison population either."

This is a weird argument, because reducing the prison population by 17% is a significant dent ..


Every time this issue comes up, it seems to polarize itself: either you have to believe that ending the "drug war" will largely solve America's incarceration problem, or, for some reason, you have to support the drug war.

I don't understand the logic. It does not follow from "ending the drug war won't solve our prison problem" that "we should maintain the drug war".

There is virtually no vocal user of HN that supports the drug war. In every thread about drugs on HN, you can safely assume the entire community agrees that the "War on Drugs" is toxic.


I generally agree w/you .. I was referring to the professor who was interviewed, not HN users. I would say that the drug war component of mass-incarceration seems separable, and easier to solve than the violent crime component. It seems better strategy to me to go after the low hanging fruit, look at the results and then plan the next move.

I would worry that trying to solve the whole issue at once, like the professor seems to suggest, would be a non-starter politically.


The problem with using trends, IMHO, rather than actual recorded figures, is that you may miss out on what's going on beneath the pretty lines and curves.

I ain't saying you're wrong because I don't have the figures to rebut that. I'm not even saying that the WoD is the major cause of violent crime, definitively, because I don't have those figures either.

Literally all I'm trying to say is that the analysis in the article seems short-sighted and incomplete because it only takes into account convictions directly for drug offences.


It always struck me (as a Brit) that the plea bargaining system in the US seemed to encourage prison time. There seems to be a lot of incentive for the DA's to 'get their conviction' and a lot of pressure on those accused to accept a bargain that might see them do 2 years instead of 20 or some arbitrary high number.

Is this an accurate view? Do these plea bargain happen regularly?

I also understand that the prison system was privatised in the US. The combination of aggressive DA's, plea bargains and financial incentives to incarcerate seem, from the outside at least, to have created a perfect storm that's sort of feeding itself.

I'd love to hear from anyone with thought on this!


>I also understand that the prison system was privatised in the US.

The prison system was not privatized in the US. Some places do have private prison but it is by no means the norm. As of 2012 less than 8% of the 2.2 million incarcerated persons in the US are in private prisons [1]. This is less than 1% of the population. Although 20% of federal prisoners are in private prisons as of last year [2].

The recidivism rate is even worse. In 2005 almost a half a million inmates were tracked after their release, more than 75% were rearrested within 5 years.[3]

>financial incentives to incarcerate...

Do you have any sources for this?

[1]http://www.propublica.org/article/by-the-numbers-the-u.s.s-g...

[2]http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2015/06/private-prisons-prof...

[3]http://www.nij.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism/pages/welco...


> The recidivism rate is even worse. In 2005 almost a half a million inmates were tracked after their release, more than 75% were rearrested within 5 years.

We have an electorate and politicians who want to put a lot of people in prison but a) don't want to "waste" money on prisoners and b) want prison to be as punitive as possible. We do very little education, counseling, vocational training, etc. Someone who goes to a US prison comes out less able to function in society than they were when they went in. They have no new job skills and any they had haven't been exercised and are out of date, they have the black mark of a conviction, they've been ground down by the experience. Honestly 75% sounds about right.

We have to accept that the people we put in prison will come out one day, and it's better for everyone if they rejoin society with the skills they need to succeed. It's in nobody's interest for them to re-offend, but we do so little to prevent it.


There was at least one notable incident of a for-profit detention center outright bribing judges to impose harsher sentences: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kids_for_cash_scandal


> Do you have any sources for this?

Actually the second link you provided mentions how private prisons take steps to keep inmates 'in' longer. So that's on incentive.

I haven't taken the time to look into it in detail (so shouldn't make sweeping statement of course), but I do remember hearing in other submissions on this site that prisons lobby and fund elected representatives who are 'tough on crime' and who might send convictions their way, so a truer 'incentive' to incarcerate initially not just keep them there.

I'll see if I can dig those up.


Thank you. I was wonder if it was actual kickbacks or something indirect like campaign funding.


I can't find the specific submissions I saw previously but did find a plethora of articles like those below with example of lobbying:

http://www.salon.com/2014/04/15/america_on_lockdown_why_the_...

https://www.opensecrets.org/news/issues/prisons/

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/08/03/627471/private-p...

There are a lot more out there across the years. The general impression is one of an 'industry' seeking to expand its operations and that just doesn't sit right to me as an outsider.


Thanks, very interesting stats!

>> financial incentives to incarcerate...

> Do you have any sources for this?

For private prisons, the Corrections Corporation of America reportedly spends over $1 million each year on lobbying. [1][2]

Beyond private prisons, there's lobbying from prison guards' unions. For example, the California union appears to have substantial political influence, and in 2008 successfully spent $1.8 million to defeat a ballot initiative that would have reduced the prison population.[3]

Further, in some municipalities, cities use fines as revenue-raising tools, and arrest and jail people who fail to pay. See e.g. the Ferguson DOJ report.[4]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corrections_Corporation_of_Ame...

[2] http://www.diversityinc.com/diversity-management/who-profits...

[3] http://criminology.fsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/volume-10-issu... p. 750 (PDF page 274)

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/03/0...


None of what you cited is actual evidence that private prisons have had an impact on incarceration rates.

I will also point out that lobbying is something every industry and interest group does in the United States, including many groups who support drug and sentencing reform. $1 million isn't even really that much.


What measure of proof do you require?

$1 million isn't even really that much.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tullock_paradox


Any measure would be a good start.


>For private prisons, the Corrections Corporation of America reportedly spends over $1 million each year on lobbying. [1][2]

Why lobbying -- buying influence with money -- is legal in the US, I will never understand...


It's because the money isn't given to the politicians or their campaigns. The money is spent hiring the lobbyists, and their teams to dedicate manpower to finding convincing arguments which can then be presented to the politicians.

Yes lobbying is usually associated with evil corporations, but the fact of the matter is that in order to fix it you would need to remove the power for citizens to speak to their representatives.


Lobbying is, as far as I know, legal in every functional democracy.

I think you are confusing this with campaign contributions, which is a different but related activity.


I'm not aware of lobbies, established for a specific purpose, with offices and personel, and getting donations, in any functional democracy I know of.


Lobbying in the UK sure sounds like lobbying in the US to me.[1] So does Volkswagen's lobbying of the EU parliament.[2] Do you have an example of a functional democracy that doesn't have lobbying like this?

[1] http://www.lobbyingtransparency.org/

[2] https://uk.news.yahoo.com/volkswagen-scandal-puts-eu-lobbyin...


> Do you have any sources for this?

"A new report by In the Public Interest finds that private prison contracts that include “occupancy requirements” — effectively inmate quotas — are alarmingly common. Among the 62 contracts that they were able to obtain, 65 percent contained occupancy provisions that required prisons to remain between 80 and 100 percent full, and can last for as long as 20 years. If beds sit empty, states still have to pay, which the report dubbed a “no-crime tax.” And even when the abuses and violations for which these private firms are notorious cause the state to remove prisoners, contractual deals compel the state to keep paying."

http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/09/20/2658701/private-...


> The prison system was not privatized in the US. Some places do have private prison but it is by no means the norm.

It doesn't have to be the norm, one is too many; private prisons should not be allowed at all and the introduction of business to the prison system is privatization of the prison system.


Most prisons may not be 100% private, but how many private sector companies provide very important services that create nearly the same problems as private prisons? Does it matter if Guards-R-Us are supplying guards to Private-Prisons-R-Us or to New York's own prisons?


If you want to see just how bad private prisons can be, read about the Cash for Kids scandal. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kids_for_cash_scandal


Calling those prisons "private" in the sense that "private" equates to "private sector" is a huge misnomer.


There's a judge who was not neutral.


Out of these two, the plea bargaining system always seemed the most corrupt to me. It's also widespread (in some form^) and predates privatization.

I say some form, because confessions forced with threats of far worse punishment are a long unbroken tradition. It used to be more common for them to happen after sentencing, say during your punishment.

The modern form usually revolves around an enormous range of potential punishments. 6 months probation if you confess/bargain, 6 ears in jail otherwise. It's especially malicious because it's all happening between lawyers, without judicial involvement. Well paid lawyers are important in courts too, but at least there is a neutral judge in the room.

It's not unique to the US.


Judges aren't neutral. They're only supposed to be neutral.


There was a movement to get everyone to decline all plea bargains to try to swamp the system, but of course these are criminals who will likely lose their case in court and end up serving a longer sentence so it never went anywhere.


Interesting thing is that one of the largest plea bargain use-cases are DUI first offenders, a group for whom many that is there only interaction with the criminal justice system -- and there are some white middle-class suburbanites who loooooove plea bargains then.


And what? It is bad that they don't usually commit crimes? Or just because they are white? First time offender plea bargains are the best chance to reduce prison population.


It's not bad -- my point is that the class of the (admittedly stereotypical) complainer about plea-bargaining, is also one of its bigger beneficiaries. That probably wasn't clear based on the comment I replied to.


And yet he says:

>> And if we focused on cutting back sentence lengths, maybe that would weaken DAs’ bargaining power at plea bargaining, but since people aren’t serving the massively long sentences anyway, it probably won’t have that big an effect on prison population either.

They're getting lots of easy short sentences because they accept those in exchange for not going to trial against 25 years. So it sure seems like reducing the long sentences and overdone charges would reduce the likelihood of getting plea bargains. Of course that would make more work for the prosecutors. Before taking that route, one has to ask if we really should have fewer people in prison. Efficiency in dolling out appropriate punishment is not a bad thing. Efficiency with injustice is a bad thing. I have no data on that, so I'll stop now. I guess I'm asking, are the people in prison for the right reasons, and is their actual sentence appropriate for what they did? We should start there, not at the population numbers.


>Is this an accurate view? Do these plea bargain happen regularly?

Yes. Either that or people just confess to everything they can out of ignorance or because showing reticence can supposedly get you leniency from a judge.

>I also understand that the prison system was privatised in the US.

Not the whole system(s), but there are private prison operators. The majority of prisons are still state owned and run.

>perfect storm

As you predicted, this guy Mark Ciavarella is probably the most shameful example of systematic injustice in recent history; he was caught and eventually sent to prison himself (though it is rare for a judge to go to prison for something they did on the bench). There is no reason that this sort of thing couldn't be happening on a wide scale. http://boingboing.net/2013/08/06/judge-who-accepted-private-...

In my state, IIRC the private prisons have contracts with the state which stipulate that they will be paid as if they were nearly full without regard to if their population falls below some threshold. I think that's probably the reason why we don't have prison operators bribing judges. We have other problems though, mostly related to underfunding health care, food, anything else that can be underfunded. About ten years ago there was a huge sex-abuse scandal in the youth-prisons. http://www.texastribune.org/2010/01/07/15-of-tx-youth-offend...


>> The majority of prisons are still state owned and run.

Do you also have privatisation happening by the back-door?

i.e. how many private services do the public prisons use? You get some weird situations where public institutions use staff from contractors, rent buildings and buy in all their services.


In Texas, we had a prison system director named Andy Collins who involved himself and the whole prison system in a huge scandal(s) about 20 years ago, and the stink from that still hasn't gone away. It was super embarrassing. Collins signed contracts to purchase some soybean product that was supposed to resemble food from an ex-convict (from Canada, not TDCJ). He didn't use the required bid process, and was receiving kickbacks for the stuff. They bought so much of it that it sat in warehouses and rotted. The inmates just wouldn't eat it. (source: I was a TDCJ guard at the time). The current directors seem content with minor scandals, and are presently leaving the wide-scale graft to someone else. TDCJ has been pretty territorial in protecting their control over staffing, and the citizens of the state were happy to fund enough concrete and bars to prevent the state needing to use those kind of creative tricks in order to get more beds. The biggest scandal with prison privatization in Texas, as far as I am aware was the problem(s) I mentioned before with the Texas Youth Commission. That's not an argument for privatization though, our private prisons still suck; we just don't do much of it here. We're apparently very proud of having one of the largest prison systems in the world, and I think our public prison officials tend to see private prisons as a threat (at least until they retire and consult for them).

>You get some weird situations where public institutions use staff from contractors, rent buildings and buy in all their services.

Yeah, IIRC TYC had all of that, and while it was talked about, nothing was really done until the sex-scandal broke.

http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-great-texas-prison-...


Any government agency meets this description, though. Your sense of smell is accurate -- it's where fraud does occur in reality. But the more serious fraud on the public comes when prison owners are incentivized to buy less food and sell the labor of their prisoners.


Partially privatized. According to a 2012 source [1], there are 1.6 million prisoners in the US and roughly 8% of them are in privately-owned prisons. That number, however, unfortunately keeps growing.

[1] http://www.propublica.org/article/by-the-numbers-the-u.s.s-g...


Huh, I was under the impression that most prisoners in the US were in privatised prisons. If that is not the case, then this does not seem to explain either the prison boom.


Prison boom is easy to explain.

Politicians like to be seen doing something. Punishing bad people is easy. Building prisons is the cost but politicians don't pay this cost and people don't understand the financial cost of the prisons nor the cost it inflicts on those imprisoned and their families.

Politicians also like to control people. You do this through laws and regulations. Combined with punitive measures you coerce people into thinking and behaving as you need them. Those who don't or are less desirable; poor who don't fund campaigns and such; are easy targets.

Politicians also want to put groups against each other, distracting both sides from all the other activities that the politician may be engaged in.

TL;DR Politicians crave power and money, it is simple to "protect" the people by making it easier to put people in jail claiming a problem solved.


But the politicians aren't the ones doing the sentencing. They just write the laws. The Slate article suggests that it's the judges who are handing out increasingly Draconian sentencing. Why are judges doing that?


Judges and prosecutors are elected too (it varies from state to state) so technically they are politicians too.


Aren't they frequently appointed or they run unopposed?


If you're interested in this, John Oliver did a piece on elected judges: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poL7l-Uk3I8


They're "supposed to" be appointed. This is the way it used to be and the way it constitutionally has to be at the federal level. But I think more than half of states have elected judges.

True, they often run unopposed, but that doesn't free then from political pressure; if they make an unpopular decision, any lawyer could opt to run against them by simply campaigning as not the other judge. They would usually win and get a fantastic résumé boost.


> if they make an unpopular decision, any lawyer could opt to run against them by simply campaigning as not the other judge

In many localities there is no requirement that a judge have any prior legal training or experience.

So anyone, not just any lawyer.


It varies from state to state (perhaps even county to county) In some places they are appointed, in others they are elected.

When they are elected, even if they run unopposed they still tend to act tough on crime. If a judge or prosecutor started acting weak, the could very quickly find themselves opposed in the next election.


One reason for this are mandatory minimum sentences. And in that case, it is the politicians who made the sentencing, in a way.


Often times judges have their hands tied. Many minimum sentencing laws were passed in the late '80's & throughout the '90's in response to the crime waves of the era. Judges simply can't give lower sentences in many instances even if they want to. In my opinion, this is a significant contributing factor.


Make no mistake, prosecutors are politicians.


Actually a lot of judges were very opposed to mandatory sentencing because it removes a lot of their power.


All those things are true in other democratic countries as well, but most of them don't have anywhere near the incarceration of the United States.


The US is by far the most violent western nation.


Except for homicide, this is not true nowadays. See http://economicpolicy.oxfordjournals.org/content/26/67/347.a... for a recent study on the subject, which notes your opinion as a "common perception" that does not match the actual data.


Also by far the most populous.

You have to think about this in the context of history. The US has largely been diverse throughout most of its history. Most developed countries are largely dominated by one race.


i don't understand this argument, can you elaborate? it looks like you're suggesting that usa is a nexus of interracial violence and other race-motivated crimes.


Not only that, but the private prison population was very small in the 1980's and early 1990's when the vast majority of the prison boom happened. Private prisons are mostly a late-90's and 2000's reaction to the desire of states to save money housing their huge prison populations.


The private prison meme is far larger than the actual number, which is eight percent. Elsewhere in this people are asking how much of US manufacturing is from prison labor, I doubt it is large enough to accurately measure.


Just how large is the meme, in units that can be reasonably compared to the percent of prisoners in privately-owned prisons?


[deleted]


Don't impugn the ACLU with your lack of understanding of how percentages work.

Edit: LesZedCB just deleted his comment where he adds two different percentage groups from the ACLU site.


Someone would have to do a survey but I would guess that 90% of Europeans buy into it. Of course they also believe that they will be carjacked if they come to the US so I don't think their opinions are useful.


What percentage is publicly owned but largely privately ran?


Private prisons are very rare in the US. The majority of them are run by individual states or by the federal government.

Where I have read that private prisons are on the rise, however, is in the UK itself, and in New Zealand and (to a lesser extent) Australia, run by companies like Serco and G4S.


Huh, this article has nothing to do with how prisons are run as a for-profit business. The prison boom began in the 1980s when Reagan and Bush privatised them:

http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-prison-industry-in-the-unit...

Isn't that our smoking gun? People are being sent to prison because someone is making a pretty penny?


This must be investigated. We can't just say 'there no clear reason for such a steep increase in conviction rates' with such a potential motive sitting there.

I'm also concerned that prisoners are used for labor at rates lower than the third-world, such as fighting fires for $2/day. It seems that investors have not just found another income source off of the backs of the very poor -- but we have found a whole new way to establish essentially slave labor.


Btw, incarceration has been historically used as slave labour for a long time. Blacks would get rounded up on the crime of "vagrancy" and would be sentenced to labour.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Codes_%28United_States%2...

This was a widespread practice until the 1960s.


Oh wow, that is fascinating and depressing reading. It really does seem that such a system would lead to invested parties pushing for more incarceration so they retain their financial gains.

Wouldn't any business try to maximise it's profits and push for conditions where making those profits becomes easier? That's the nature of a business isn't it, one run solely for profit anyway?


Yes, the article says nothing, because some things are just "politically incorrect": prison is a continuation of slavery. The drug war attacks certain cultures. Some make money off cheap labor and government prison funding. A country that ravages people outside the country in war, will ravage people inside the country too. Prison is a tool to maintain a status quo by reducing many people's freedom to resist.

If the article talked about China or Russia, it wouldn't talk about regulating lawyers. It'd talk about the systematic incentives that make everyone (not just lawyers) act so zealously to imprison their populace.


Please don't use the political correctness strawman. Nobody is refusing to talk about privatisation of prisons because of it. Many people talk about it, and there's no evidence that the Slate article refused to talk about privatisation from fear of offending anyone.


Much agreed that PC is a crappy straw man. I'm glad Slate is talking but I don't think anywhere close to enough of the nation is willing to have this conversation.


Many are willing to have the conversation, but the majority want to be tougher on crime.


Much agreed that private prisons are slavery. It's superficially racist and classist, but out of misplaced respect for (white) feelings it is truly difficult to have a national debate around it.


(downvote utterly expected)


A common refrain you hear from law enforcement is "ignorance of the law is no protection from breaking it."

But what if it was?

As Harvey Silverglate details in his book, "3 Felonies a Day,[1]" it is absurdly easy to accidentally commit a federal crime and serve prison time. The idea behind vindictive punishment is to make it so bad that you won't commit a crime, but if people aren't aware of the liabilities, how can people truly know their risk? Often intent has to be proven, but if it's in the interest of the prosecutor and their career to get a conviction, they'll get a conviction.

I think to reduce the "arrest/convict, ask questions later" approach is to give every officer and prosecutor a publicly available scorecard that shows their record of rightful arrests and convictions versus wrongful ones, as well as excessive punishment sought and applied in wrongful cases.

There is a scene at the end of the hilarious murder trial film, My Cousin Vinny, when the defense's expert witness completely shatters the prosecution's case, and the prosecutor immediately moves to dismiss all charges. I wonder if that would happen today?

1. http://www.threefeloniesaday.com/Youtoo/tabid/86/Default.asp...


> A common refrain you hear from law enforcement is "ignorance of the law is no protection from breaking it." > > But what if it was?

It is for police and judges. See what happens if a policeman gives you a bogus ticket. Or a judge makes a decision counter to the law. The onus is on you to prove they're wrong. And there is no punishment or negative feedback on them for breaking the law.

If the police and judges aren't required to know the law, I don't see why anyone else needs to know it, either.


This principle was explicitly upheld by the Supreme Court in Heien v. North Carolina. A police officer pulled a car over because it had a broken brake light. During the stop, the police officer became suspicious that the car was carrying drugs, searched the car (with the permission of the driver) and found cocaine.

Now, as it happens it is not illegal under North Carolina state law to have a broken brake light, so the police officer had no basis to pull the man over in the first place. But the Supreme Court ruled that there are so many laws out there that a police officer cannot possibly know them all and because the police officer believed that the defendant was breaking the law in good faith, that was good enough for a traffic stop.


Why would it be legal to have non working brake lights? Is car safety equipment just optional in NC?

(Makes sense that it should be insufficient for a car search though.)


I might have had it slightly wrong in my original comment. I think that only one of his brake lights was faulty and it's not illegal to have one broken brake light.


I think that "ignorance of the law is no protection from breaking it" is desirable. Otherwise it would be on everybody's best interest not to know the law.

Of course, it is also desirable for a lay person to be able to know the full extent of the law. Maybe we should make a rule about the maximum amount of information that can be encoded in our legal system. Such as, you can only get n bits of information, for some reasonable n. Say the same amounts of bits that takes to encode Romeo and Juliet. Once they are all used up, it would not be possible to mandate more things unless some previous mandates are removed.

We would still need codes and regulations, though, and we could assign m new bits to each of them. With the rule that no role should require one to be aware of more than k codes and regulations. For the smallest possible k.

So the cost of knowing (albeit not necessarily understanding) the law would be n + mk. Which seems sensible enough.


>I think that "ignorance of the law is no protection from breaking it" is desirable. Otherwise it would be on everybody's best interest not to know the law.

Have it depend on some community average. Common laws, ignorance is no excuse. Esoteric laws? Not knowing is an excuse.

This way, society will make sure to know the laws they value (such as knowing theft is wrong because more people would rather not be stolen from than be able to get away with stealing), but society is still protected against insane esoteric laws that just serve to make everyone into a criminal.


I agree, there should be some process to challenge that a law is too obscure, and if the judge agrees with the defendant, the defendant's charge is dropped and a process put into motion to dramatically increase public awareness of the law.

It seems we have a blanket policy to address ignorance of the law, which makes no sense because the whole point of trials is to make decisions case-by-case.

I don't think this process would be used often though.


You reminded me of something I heard the other day regarding minimum sentencing laws -- they (partly) don't work because people aren't law experts and don't know about them. It's like that joke "I bought a book on livestock breeding but the cows can't read it". Maybe better education of the consequences would help. Or not. I don't know.


Finally. I was unfortunately victim to this (not in the US, but in Canada) where objectively, it should have been dropped, but the prosecutor wanted to make an example of me. The case was unbelievably flimsy, but you have no idea the pressure you're under when you're facing opponents who have financial and social incentives to punish you. The morning of my trial (I refused to accept anything before then), the prosecutor was losing her shit because she could lose, screaming and yelling at me. I literally laughed in her face, then accepted the least possible thing that resulted in no conviction or record without a trial. The witnesses had financial incentives to lie and I did not have the resources to go through an appeal.

Things I heard throughout this ordeal:

  1. If you were white, this never would have happened.
  2. I cannot believe how much $witness is lying, yet you can't prove it.
Since this problem, I've seen the same prosecutor try and catch other people in the same bullshit law to the point where it has been in the news. I've countered with my own silent battle, getting politicians to talk to me and I can say that this has directly resulted in some changes, which I'm happy about. One of them told actually told me that he wishes I would have won so that he could use me as an example. Can you believe it?

I gotta tell you, it's frustrating as anything I have ever experienced in my life. But living well is the best revenge and I've got a great life.

  Oh, I posted bail? I'm out this motherfucker?
  I could go? Oh, fuck y'all, aye, fuck the judge
  Fuck the motherfuckin' District Attorney, the prosecutor
  And fuck you motherfuckers in the jury box
  Fuck all y'all 'cause I'm out on motherfuckin' bail
  Y'all ain't never gonna see me in this motherfucker again
  Drop that shit 'em
  Let these old punk ass bitches know how we runnin' this shit
  Niggaz ain't going back to court you stank ass bitches
I understand Tupac better now.


I can definitely say that DAs are the biggest factor in the prison population boom. For example, I was arrested for threatening my dad many years ago. I could've easily gone to prison for some time but the DA was given leeway to drop the charges entirely (with the assumption I wouldn't cause trouble for quite some time).

If a DA's office can drop charges with little consequences then it's obvious they can press on with the silliest of notions of meting out justice for all of them (which they do). I think there needs to be a complete overhaul of how criminal prosecution is done in this country.


Do you still have "3 minor crimes" == "prison time"?

Are prisoners still forced to provide cheap "American" goods that would otherwise come from China?

Do "Christian" groups still push for the highest technically possible sentence against the public interest?

An odd thing to say about a slate article, but I think they're overthinking it.


> Do "Christian" groups still push for the highest technically possible sentence against the public interest?

I've never heard that. On the contrary, many churches have jail and prison outreach ministries (here's one I just found on google: http://www.theriversidechurchny.org/socialjustice/?prison). One of them, Prison Fellowship (and its founder Chuck Colson) is quite large and widely respected and supported in the Christian community (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison_Fellowship).

Justice Fellowship spun off of Prison Fellowship, which specifically fights to reform the American justice system (http://www.justicefellowship.org/issues).


It's easy to find self-described Christians who are extremely right-wing and favor harsh sentences for "lawbreakers" because they see themselves as the good people who will never break a law, and therefore never experience or otherwise have to think about proportionality.


Yeah but that's more tied with the "right wing" than the "Christian". Sure there's overlap between those groups, but you won't find more left-wing Christian groups pressing for harsher sentencing, and you will find right-wing non-christian (non-religious) groups pushing for harsher sentencing, so I think referring to them as " Christian is really a misidentification.


Quite frankly, I think it's possible to find that in almost any group that is middle class or higher. Reducing it to a religious problem is pretty simplistic, especially since it's already pretty well understood to be a race problem and an economic/class problem.


Sure. And from a Christian perspective, they ignore Christ's teachings when they do so:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%2025:35...

Christ always had a special place for the people in the worst circumstances, even if they deserve their problems.


>Are prisoners still forced to provide cheap "American" goods that would otherwise come from China?

It's worse than that. One prison rents their inmates to a company which has them cold calls people and pretend to be a charity in order to sell them overpriced crap "American Helping Hands" http://www.americanhelpinghands.org/Products.aspx

>An odd thing to say about a slate article, but I think they're overthinking it.

I've seen this same trope going around recently that drug law reform won't help us control the prison population, usually as an excuse not to reform drug laws. If you get caught with drugs, you may well be breaking other laws that allow police or D.A.'s to charge you as a violent or higher level offender. Caught with drugs and a gun? Your gun possession may have been legal in absence of the drugs but now you may be on the hook for a/another felony. Did you "resist arrest"? They love this stuff because they think it makes them look more effective.


The problem with the word "Christians" is that it is a very vague term. For baptists, the term would include the likes MLK and Jimmy Carter but also the Westboro church (which is irrelevantly small, but gets a lot of publicity).

It also includes Catholicism and mainline protestants who are appalled at the US' prison system and have been very vocal working to change it.


I don't believe the prison work programs are forced at all, I think they have a choice to do it. Instead it's a chance for them to get work experience/vocation education that they might not have received.


I spent four hours in a county court room one morning. You can do it, too. I regularly heard the judge dole out terms like "5 years in state prison, with a month of credit for every 3 months of work." Convicts were literally being told to work in exchange for their freedom, like modern day indentured servitude.


Supporters of this may believe that giving inmates jobs is a better rehabilitation device than playing basketball, working out, watching TV, or sitting in a cell all day. Instead, being taught to do things that most members of society have to do to survive.

Work credits could be seen as getting a shorter sentence by showing that you can behave like members of society (i.e. displaying evidence of your rehabilitation). They normally give credits like this for general good behavior, too (again, evidence for behaving in society, at large).


I would be in full support, too, if inmates received more than $0.21-1.23 per hour: http://drc.ohio.gov/web/drc_policies/documents/25-OPI-11.pdf


The habitual offender sentencing laws generally only apply when at least 1 of the crimes is a violent felony.

Which isn't to say I think they are a good idea, but they don't really target minor crimes.


Not true in Nevada and a handful of other states. Any third felony can mean a sentence of up to 20 years, and any fourth felony can mean life without the possibility of parole [1]. What's worse is that many cases contain multiple counts. Under Nevada law, these are considered separate felony convictions if they occurred on different days. For example, someone that pleads guilty to three counts of car theft that occurred over the course of a few months, serves their time, and is released, is now eligible for a life-without-parole sentence if they are convicted of any felony in the future - despite having only been arrested and convicted once before.

As you might expect with such a draconian law, approximately 1 in 5 prisoners in Nevada are serving a life sentence.

[1] http://law.justia.com/codes/nevada/2010/title15/chapter207/n...


The original question asked about minor crimes, which felonies are not.


You'd be surprised what constitutes a felony. In some states a theft or destruction of an item valued at over $100 is a felony. In fact the crux of this article is that the prison population has risen so dramatically due to the decision by prosecutors to file dramatically more felony charges than they they had previously filed:

"What appears to happen during this time—the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available—is that the probability that a district attorney files a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies. I can’t tell you why they’re doing that. No one’s really got an answer to that yet. But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down."


Failing to comply with a police order is a felony in many jurisdictions.


Which is a huge problem: there are felonies which should not be felonies. Felonies are supposed to be major crimes, crimes for which death is warranted (but which, for various reasons, modern society punishes with over a year in prison).

'Failing to comply with a police order' on its own should probably carry a small fine.


In summary: The theory is that from the mid 70s to the early 90s the prison population increased due to a real increase in crime, but after that, it increased due to prosecutors doubling the percentage of arrestees that they charge with a felony.

I wonder if the simple explanation is that over decades the size of the prosecutorial bureaucracy increased to deal with an actual increased work load, but after that work load started to go down naturally, that bureaucracy had to find a way to keep itself in business, and that was by charging arrestees who would have been previously released.

A DA's office where people are sitting on their hands is an office that will see budget cuts and staff reductions. We know from both government and the private industry that almost no department will voluntarily take a budget or staff cut, even if it is warranted.

Maybe we should try reducing the DA's budgets in some states/counties and see what happens to crime and incarceration rates.


FTFA:

>Well, the real growth in the prison population comes from county-level district attorneys sending violent people to prison.

If the article's conclusion was the title it would not even be on HN.


There are so many complicated variables in this, but one thing that is crucial to point out is that he keeps referring to state prisons, which is intentionally misleading because many many drug offenders end up in federal prisons, where they make up 48.4% (https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/statistics_inmate_offen...) of the population. That alone makes a lot of this guy's commentary suspect, and since he didn't even mention race or private prisons as a possible factor it really tanks the smell test on this new theory of his.


Federal prisons make up less than 10% of the US prison population. It's almost irrelevant in terms of the total prison population.


> And if we focused on cutting back sentence lengths, maybe that would weaken DAs’ bargaining power at plea bargaining, but since people aren’t serving the massively long sentences anyway, it probably won’t have that big an effect on prison population either.

So Mr. Pfaff believes that overzealous DAs have caused the prison population to skyrocket, but quickly dismisses the one proposal that could actually help solve the problem.

This seems like a classic case of "My answer, and only my answer, is correct. All other answers are wrong, even if they are compatible with my answer."

> You can’t necessarily go to Washington and say, ‘Here’s the law that’s going to control what the DAs do,’ because they don’t have to listen to the federal government at all."

Yes, you can. Getting rid of ridiculously long mandatory sentences will make a DA sound a lot less convincing when he threatens the defendant to accept a plea bargain or else. If fewer defendants accept plea bargains, the DA will have to go to trial more often, which costs a lot of time and money. This gives DAs a strong incentive not to charge too many people.

There is no justice in a legal system where one side is free to threaten the other side to waive their Constitutional right to a day in court. I don't think we will ever achieve perfect equality of bargaining power between the state and an individual citizen, but tweaking the incentive structure in this way would be a promising first step toward reducing that gap.


One avenue for improvement that I see is the elimination of mandatory minimums. Mandatory minimums are, in my ever so humble opinion, a blaten violation of the spirit of the United States Constitution re separation of powers, and the elimination of such sentencing requirements giving way, once again, to true judicial discretion would go a long way toward remedying things.


I think the line between criminals and civilians has blurred. Too many people live their daily lives while technically committing crimes.


The only difference between me and many criminals is they were caught in the act. Even Obama is an example of this [1].

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/24/world/americas/24iht-dems....


Prison industrial complex (private prisons), debtors prison and war on drugs are three things I can come up with off the top of my head.


The article tentatively points the finger at the fact that prosecutors are elected, and that being a prosecutor is a step towards higher elected office.

The fact that the US elects prosecutors, and judges, is incredibly strange. Surely it could only possibly be a terrible, catastrophic idea? You want prosecutors and judges to be professional, impartial, and independent, which is exactly what elected politicians aren't.

Are there any other countries which elect their judges or prosecutors? How did the US get like this? Are Americans aware of how odd this is?

The Economist has some funny stories about it:

http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21613276-theyre-...


In the discussions here I keep seeing 8% mentioned as the proportion of prisoners held by private prisons. I wanted a little more context for that number so I found the absolute numbers.

Total US Prison Population[0]: 2,400,000

Private US Prison Population: 200,000

[0] As of 2008, if someone has more recent numbers please comment.


TLDR: it wasn't the crime waves, it wasn't longer prison sentences, it wasn't the declared war on drugs - it's that the probability that a district attorney files a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3


Professor John Pfaff prescribes as the solution:

"What makes it very hard is that the person we really need to target now—whose behavior we need to regulate—is the district attorney, and the district attorney is a very politically independent figure. He’s directly elected, and he’s directly elected at the county level. So there’s no big centralized fix. You can’t necessarily go to Washington and say, ‘Here’s the law that’s going to control what the DAs do,’ because they don’t have to listen to the federal government at all."

However, this is not only anti-democratic but anti to the entire American system of decentralized government.


I was surprised that almost everything that I'd heard about prisons in the US was wrong. (I went digging into source documents to confirm the below.)

- US prison population is declining in both absolute and relative numbers, even as the population is growing. [1]

- The prison population skews strongly toward violence. I totaled up the numbers from my own state's prisons[2]:

  51% - HOMICIDE, SEXUAL ASSAULT, ROBBERY, ASSAULT, KIDNAPPING
  21% - BURGLARY, LARCENY, STOLEN VEHICLE, FRAUDULENT ACTIVITY, FORGERY/COUNTERFEITING
  17% - DRUGS
  11% - Other
- The violent offender percentage is increasing over time, while the drug related charges are decreasing.

- Federal prisons make up less than 10% of the US prison population, and have a very different composition, and legal pathway for getting there. Any statistic you see that is about only "Federal" prisons or prisoners is next to meaningless in the context of the US prison population.

- The percentage of US incarcerated that are in privately owned prisons is actual lower than the quoted 8%, and is actually somewhere around 5-6%. (Both TFA and Wikipedia make the mistake of thinking that Federal Prisons + State prisons equals all US prisoners. The are forgetting about local jails, which account for roughly 25% of US prisoners.)

- Prisons contain far more convicted murderers than you could think possible. People with lesser charges leave soon, and people with murder convictions stay for a long time. 15% of my state's prison population is in with either life or more than 30 years.[3] 50% of my state's prisoners are serving more than a ten year term.[3] But at the same time the intake numbers look entirely different - most people arriving have less than a 2 year term and only 1.3% of arrivals last year had a 30 year or more sentence. [4]

[1] http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p14.pdf

[2] http://www.doc.sc.gov/pubweb/research/InmatePopulationStatsT...

[3] http://www.doc.sc.gov/pubweb/research/InmatePopulationStatsT...

[4] http://www.doc.sc.gov/pubweb/research/AdmissionsTrend/Admiss...


What makes a convicted murderer doesn't always implies killing anyone, as in the case of the burglars charged and condemned for murder after the death of their accomplice, killed by a homeowner...

Numbers on "murderers" who didn't kill anyone would be interresting.


Did anyone else notice the URL of this article?

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2015/0...

In case you missed it, the HTML file linked to is "A provocative new theory for why so many americans are single"

It may be early morning, but I find that amusing :)


"new theory"


FTA:

>Well, the real growth in the prison population comes from county-level district attorneys sending violent people to prison.


The professor interviewed in this article argues that the rise in prison population can only partly be explained by the common theories (an actual crime wave in the 80s, drug criminalization, and mandatory minimums).

He argues that one of the biggest factors of the prison boom is with the DA having to be 'tough on crime' to further future political ambitions. I don't think anyone can argue with this, as historically being 'tough on crime' has been a vote getter.

A few other factors I think are worthy of considering:

1) The financial incentives of the for profit prison system (which includes for profit prisons, prison guard unions, bail bond industry) which advocates for harsher sentences.

2) The political incentives of having a larger prison population. Many congressmen fight to have a prison in their district for two main reasons. First, it brings jobs to their community. Second, and more importantly, it increases the count of people who they 'represent' even though the felons are not allowed to vote!

3) The criminalization of mental illness- We used to heavily fund mental hospitals. This has been chipped away dramatically starting in the 1980s.

4) Average lifespan of prisoners increasing- I would assume that the average prisoner's lifespan is increasing, hence a bigger prison population. No real evidence to back this up.

5) Drug criminalization leads to more criminals- The professor argues that the population who are in prison for drugs alone is only a small percentage, and that the rest are due violent crimes and property crimes. This is misleading as drug criminalization naturally leads to more criminal activities in other fields. By pushing drugs underground, a group of people will be inevitably become comfortable with the underground. Secondly, drug criminalization leads to higher drug prices, which leads to more property crimes to fuel addiction. Lastly, drug criminalization means people are less likely to get help for their drug problems, increasing the chances they will become socially maladaptive and more likely to develop violent behaviors.

6) The gutting of public defenders- Tied to what the professor argued but surprisingly not really mentioned. Public defenders are extremely underfunded, hence a high likelihood of losing your court case. This in turn leads to a higher prison population.

7) Discrimination against prisoners- As our economy gets more and more competitive, and as background information becomes easier to obtain, it is getting harder and harder for prisoners to get a job. Tied to point #5, a person who would be arrested for drugs could have his future economic career ruined. He has a higher likelihood of reverting back to crime, hence a higher prison population.

8) The removal and policing of public space- One thing I noticed is that public spaces (i.e. parks, stoops, etc) have been routinely removed to make space for private retail. It's way easier to call the cops when you are angering the property owner than if you are on public property. And in those public spaces, you are subject to way more laws (i.e. public intoxication). So it should be no surprise that we have a higher prison population if we're systematically policing more and more areas.

Many of these problems stem back to Reagan in the 1980s with America took a decidedly right-wing turn. Glad to see society is finally changing what it thinks about the over-criminalization of society.


Have you read http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/the-blac...? It's a gripping analysis of the mass incarceration or prison industrial https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison%E2%80%93industrial_comp... complex.


>> The political incentives of having a larger prison population. Many congressmen fight to have a prison in their district for two main reasons. First, it brings jobs to their community.

Nobody wants a prison in their community. And nobody wants to work in a prison.


I disagree - prisons bring large numbers of jobs to otherwise economically depressed areas. If your options are working at Burger King or working at a prison with benefits, guaranteed overtime, and opportunity for advancement, you'll take the prison gig.

My girlfriend has worked corrections at the state and county level. She hated county but enjoyed the state work.


There's a reason they put prisons in towns you never heard of. Nobody wants a prison in their community.


>Well, the real growth in the prison population comes from county-level district attorneys sending violent people to prison.


Except it never answered why the DA's are sending more people to prison. That sort of begs the question, right? The best conclusion the author came up with was:

> Maybe it’s that next election they’re looking at, that they remain tough on crime because they want to become attorney general or governor. There’s no clear data on this.

which is a super weak answer. As jordigh said above, it's because prisons are now largely run for profit. Most people who were already aware of the large prison population already knew that for-profit prisons was the reason this phenomenon occurred. Honestly, this article sounds like a propaganda piece to serve as a red herring for the for-profit prison industry to keep chugging along.


I know people don't want to hear it but private prisons are only 8%, but keep on believing what you need to.


[deleted]


Did you just add two separate percentages together? Facepalm.

Edit: LesZedCB just deleted his comment where he indignantly told me that 6% of state prisoners plus 16% of federal prisoners equals 22% of all prisoners.


I redacted it because I realized it was bad math. Sorry for the indignance, it was misinformed on my own part.


Ok, thanks. It is better to edit in place once someone has replied.




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