Friday, November 17, 2006

Crack, Incarceration and Crime

The Federal sentencing hearings on crack v. powder cocaine earlier this week brought into relief the divergent views on the role of incarceration in combating crime (overview by Doug Berman w/ link to testimony here, NPR story here). The Miami prosecutor testified this week that strong federal sentencing guidelines (more and longer incarceration) represent “one of the best tools for law enforcement's efforts to stop violent crime and…Attempts to reduce these sentences create a risk in my opinion of increased drug violence." Others were more concerned about unwarranted racial disparity, and found the crime control rationale weak. Noted criminologist Al Blumstein said that the drop in violence in the 1990’s had little to do with incarceration rates for cocaine/crack trafficking, and more to do with structural changes in the drug markets themselves. He concluded that there was no longer much of a crime control rationale for the 100:1 cocaine/crack punishment disparity.

Seems like as good a time as any to talk about incarceration and crime (as for crack/cocaine - Read the USSC testimony referenced above – many excellent reports).

Factors thought to explain the linkage between crime and imprisonment are diverse, with little consensus and much political posturing. Clearly, changes in imprisonment-crime rates, and the relationship between the two phenomena, are a function of many things including:

- Changes in corrections sentencing policy: William Spellman at UT-Austin estimates that the crime drop of the 1990’s would have occurred anyway, but the crime drop would have been as much as 27 percent smaller had the large prison buildup never taken place – the focus of his work is not drug crime;
- The availability of resources: Greenberg and West 2001 here, found that sustained high levels of crime, esp. violent and drug crime, contributed to prison population growth, but prisons expanded faster where state government revenues increased. Higher incarceration rates then were also a policy response to crime, contingent in part on available resources; and
- And how those resources are applied: For example, the WSIPP benefit-cost analysis that Mike discussed earlier this week and available here proposes substantial savings to Washington state over 20 years using more treatment and education programming in adult prison, more prevention programs for children, and more juvenile programs. So, incarceration can be seen as a workable method of combating crime -- but not the only, or always the best, method.

Another way to look at the crime-incarceration linkage is to look at incarceration as a response to crime and fear of crime, governmental units and elected leaders searching for a response. Many commentators look to the state level crime and imprisonment data, and policy responses like sweeping and specific sentencing reform and other state changes. For example, according to Blumstein and Beck (1999) the dominant factor in state and federal incarceration growth (over 200 percent between 1980 and 1996) is drug offending (and the accompanying law enforcement response), which grew by ten times. The growth in incarceration for drugs is driven most strongly by growth in arrest rates, then by commitments per arrest. Conversely, the growth in state incarceration for non-drug offenses is attributable entirely to sentencing increases, the number of commitments per arrest and time-served increases. Incarceration rates rose faster for minorities (184 percent for African Americans and 235 percent for Hispanics) than for non-Hispanic whites (164 percent). Of course, in part this reflects things like the crack-powder federal policy disparities, although most states have not pursued sentencing policies like the 100:1 ratio.

Setting aside the real linkages between crime and incarceration, how much does political discourse contribute to the increase in the imprisonment rate? And how much of the fluctuation up and down (mostly up in recent decades) is attributable to the state’s fiscal situation and available resources? (I’m not claiming the federal government is influenced by fiscal considerations, at least to anything like the same degree – far from it!) It would be na├»ve to think that bureaucratic and fiscal pressures don’t count as important factors in changing imprisonment rates. Greenberg and West, cited above, found that increased imprisonment rates were tied both to state revenues and state spending in other areas (spending in other areas is inversely correlated with imprisonment rates – as one would expect with state balanced budget mandates).

Some may think responsiveness to citizen demands is correspondingly reduced by the green eyeshade view of the world. However, it is hard to see the U.S. prison growth since 1980 and not think of Julian Roberts’ term “penal populism” – tough talk on crime that is a virtual precondition for electoral success. Penal populism is likely a prime mover in prison growth since 1980, especially in the U.S. but not exclusively. Fiscal pressures appear to operate on the margins, restricting the incarceration wave in some places relative to other places, but those pressures don’t explain the wave. The tone of the federal sentencing hearings, mostly a call to modify the incarceration response of the Drug War, may be part of a retreat from penal populism. Or not.

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