The New Yorker has a new article up discussing incarceration in the U.S. As expected, it includes sobering facts like these:
For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones. More than half of all black men without a high-school diploma go to prison at some time in their lives. Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
The statistic, however, aren’t the really fascinating part of the article. That comes at the end, where you might not even see it if you’ve become depressed by the state of the U.S. justice system and quit reading. It begins with something that appears to justify the mass incarceration:
Yet a spectre haunts all these accounts, North and South, whether process gone mad or penal colony writ large. It is that the epidemic of imprisonment seems to track the dramatic decline in crime over the same period. The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets. The real background to the prison boom, which shows up only sporadically in the prison literature, is the crime wave that preceded and overlapped it.
It ends, however, with a contradiction that comes from focusing on New York, which experienced an 80% decrease in crime while the rest of the country experienced only a 40% decrease.
One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison.
What did make the change in New York then? You should really read the article for the whole discussion, particularly if you feel compelled to comment in the negative here, but the answer offered is largely an economic one. New York police followed policies that made larger crimes more difficult to get away with while not increasing prosecutions for smaller crimes.
It’s hardly a solution that comes without social costs. It relies on profiling and a great deal of police contact with people who may well not have committed any crime at all. The author of the research that suggests this is the policy that has worked, Franklin E. Zimring, is somewhat blase about the effects on minorities, noting that they have more to gain as the disproportionate victims of crime. In the presence of anything less than a completely professional police force, however, well trained to compensate for biases and unusually resistant to abusing their powers, the costs to minorities are likely to be disproportionately higher in ways that simple numbers of stops and friskings can’t capture.
Nonetheless, the costs of the current system are immense and also highly disproportionate. The change suggested by this research has less to do with adding profiling to the equation (where it is entrenched) than removing incarceration for small offenses and reducing it for others while increasing the contact the nonincarcerated population has with the police. Go read the whole article and decide for yourself what you think.