Monday, March 2, 2009

So... We're Not the Worst?

This morning's Sacramento Bee Capitol Alert alerted us to a newly published study by the Pew Center on the States, which has numbers on prison and parole numbers and expenditures in U.S States. Apparently, when looking at numbers per capita, rather than rates, we are not the worst state in terms of incarceration

Nationwide, Pew says, 1 in 31 adults - about 7.3 million men and women altogether - are either behind bars or under parole or probation supervision for crimes. But in California it's one in 36, slightly below the national average. Even so, that amounts to about 750,000 Californians, with more than a fifth of them in state prison.

Georgia, with one of every 13 adults in the correctional system, has the highest ratio, with Idaho, at one of 18, in second place. At the other end of the scale are New Hampshire, with one of 88 adults, and adjacent Maine at one of 81. Among larger states, Texas and Florida have substantially higher ratios than California while New York is much lower at just one in 53.

In 2008, Pew says, the 34 states "for which data are available" spent about $20 billion on prisons, probation and parole, but for some reason the study omitted California which spends more than half that sum all by itself when probation and parole costs are included.

This, in itself, is not news, in the sense that the per-capita imprisonment rates have appeared earlier in the New York Times. What's important to stress is that this does not mean there is no cause for concern. Not only should we be concerned about our expenditure on corrections and our inadequate facilities, but every jurisdiction in which 1 in 36 adults is under the state's punitive apparatus should take a hard, grim look in the mirror, regardless of how other states are doing. The fact that 1 in 13 adults in Georgia is in prison or under law enforcement supervision is no cause for rejoicing in California.

The important question seems to be whether CA is merely a private case of an American affliction, or whether there is something unique to how we do things in this particular state. If the former is correct, and CA is more of an extreme case than an idiosyncrasy, we should also ask ourselves whether these rates of imprisonment correspond with what Frank Zimring calls, in one of his recent books, The Great American Crime Decline. Have we managed to produce a decline in crime because of our imprisonment rates, or is this an unrelated trend? Zimring produces convincing evidence to argue that the decline is a rather complex trend, in which law enforcement and punitive measures play a rather small part. Notwithstanding the important conversations that need to be had on the state level, there is a bigger picture here, and the national war on crime has not, so far, addressed it on a fact-based, informed, moral-panic-free level.

Frank Zimring will be on our opening panel at the upcoming California Correctional Crisis conference. 


Shunra said...

I wonder how those rates compare with the way an epidemic decimates a population.

Hadar Aviram said...

Or, at least, certain sections of the population, because, as we know, incarceration is not randomly distributed across the California population.