Prison Admission Rates are Falling

In an earlier post, I pointed out that after increasing for more than thirty years, prison populations have been begun to decline. Keith Humphreys further notes that the trend is even more dramatic when we look at the flow of people into prisons (rather than the stock).


In absolute numbers, the number of admissions in 2012 (609,800) was the lowest since 1999.

Drug-related imprisonments are especially down. In 1991, for example, 23% of the prisoner’s sentenced for more than one year were sentenced for drug related reasons (including 8.2% for drug possession). In 2011 only 16.6% of imprisonments for more than one year were for drug-related reasons (including 4.1% for drug possession.) This trend is likely to continue with further drug legalization.


Wonder how a graph of average sentence length looks like. Nudging sentence-duration up would be one way to artificially get admissions down.

Another way would be if the jail-prison-detention mix ratio has shifted.

States are different. Even adjoining states are different in incarceration rates and jail terms. What evidence do you have from this data that increasing sentences reduced crime rates when you compare two sates with different jail terms.

Imprisonment admissions went way down in the Sixties, opening the door to a generation-long crime crime spree. The long increase in imprisonment starting maybe at the end of the 1970s finally got through to people after about 25 years that maybe a life of crime wasn't such a hot idea. The sad news is that it took longer to get through the message Don't Do Crime in 1980-2005 than it did back in 1963-1974 to get through the message Why Not Do Crime!

The UK and the rest of the Westen world with an incarceration rate a fifth or more of the US isn't experiencing a crime spree.

As Steve would gladly tell you, the rest of the western world doesn't have as many black people.

As Milton Friedman might say, there isn't much crime among Scandinavians in America, either.

And yet there are White Supremacists in jail - still the supreme irony.

White racial prison gangs are no more "supremacist" than Black prison gangs and Latino prison gangs. Just another example of selective bias against whites.

That's a lie. They self label as white supremacists.

Right and the Latin Kings and the Black Guerrilla Family are just, like, civic associations like the Rotary Club. God, it's like talking to a five year old...

I'm just imagining john personna's thought process here:

Blacks form explicitly Blacks-only prison gang to exploit numerical superiority to dominate and terrorize other prisoners: meh

Hispanics form explicitly Hispanic-only prison gang to exploit numerical superiority to dominate and terrorize other prisoners and defend themselves from Black gang: meh

Whites form explicitly Whites-only prison gang to defend themselves from the Black and Hispanic gangs that dominate the prison system: OMG WHAT A BUNCH OF RACIST ASSHOLES WTF

Even ignoring demographics, the assertion the other nations are not experiencing what Americans would consider a crime spree just isn't right.

Homicide rates are dramatically lower there, as everyone knows, but most other types of crime are dramatically higher — double to five-fold.

In some nations, that's true even of violent crime. The UK's numbers are four or five times higher. Sweden's and Austria's are more than double. [ (Rates not from a Daily Mail study, btw, but the EU and UN)]

For property crimes the rates are far, far higher in the EU but it's hard to say just how much higher because so few people bother to report theft in the EU.

Also, there's been a lot of statistical work done to investigate just how much of America's crime drop stems from locking more people up for longer and the answer is almost always "Quite a bit." Freakonomics has a good summary of the work.

Whether lower crime rates justify the suffering American prisoners endure is a matter opinion. Whether America's high incarceration rates do lower crime significantly is not.

Canadian crime rates doubled and halved in lockstep with American rates (except the crack spike), but its incarceration never moved. So the effect of incarceration appears to be zero.

Oops, "race watchers" (to use the polite term) might want to check that one.

"Canadian crime rates doubled and halved in lockstep with American rates"

That doesn't appear to be true.

"Historically, the violent crime rate in Canada is far lower than that of the U.S. and this continues to be the case. For example, in 2000 the United States' rate for robberies was 65 percent higher, its rate for aggravated assault was more than double, and its murder rate was triple that of Canada. However, the rate of some property crime types is lower in the U.S. than in Canada. For example, in 2006, the rates of vehicle theft were 22% higher in Canada than in the US.[30]

Furthermore, in recent years, the gap in violent crime rates between the United States and Canada has narrowed due to a precipitous drop in the violent crime rate in the U.S. "

You are talking about absolute numbers. I'm talking about secular change, because that's the topic of the post and Steve's comment. Also, its probably the result of changes that are easier to control. American whites are about three times as murderous as Canadians (which pretty much means Canadian whites). That was true in 1965 and it was true in 1975, when both had become twice as murderous as before. It is true again today, when both have returned to 1965. The inter-country 3x is bigger than the inter-temporal 2x, but the 2x is a big deal.

"You are talking about absolute numbers. "

No, I'm not. From above:
"Furthermore, in recent years, the gap in violent crime rates between the United States and Canada has narrowed due to a precipitous drop in the violent crime rate in the U.S. ”."

There was a decline in the ratio.

Sorry, I ignored that sentence because it didn't contain numbers. It appears to me to be pulled out of thin air. Wikipedia, unlike you, goes on to talk about aggravated assaults. But it (1) talks only about the 90s and (2) doesn't give enough numbers to tell if the qualitative summary are actually true. In my previous comment I explain the time frame I'm talking about.

I should have said in my first comment that I'm talking about murders. One reason is that I trust those numbers much more than other numbers. The other is that I've looked them up. If you point me to a 50 year graph of aggravated assaults, I might be interested. Cherry picked dates without actual numbers, no.

But Canada's crime rate was never very high, which meant that crime didn't have the cataclysmic impact of the American crime rate -- compare Detroit to Windsor, across the river. Which means that there are all sorts of differences between the two countries' experiences due to diminishing marginal returns.

I mean, how much harder should Canadians have tried in the 1960s and 1970s to hold down the crime rate in Windsor? A modest amount.

How much harder should Americans in the 1960s and 1970s have tried to hold down the crime rate in Detroit? A lot.

Yes, America had a big problem and Canada did not. Maybe that justifies America doing the prison arm of the experiment. But now we've done the experiment and know that the American approach to incarceration had no benefit whatsoever, we should learn the lesson. For starters, stop saying that imprisonment helped.

"and know that the American approach to incarceration had no benefit whatsoever, we should learn the lesson. For starters, stop saying that imprisonment helped."

You keep saying that, but the facts don't back up your statements.

What does this do to the unemployment rate, if anything? Are people who aren't in prison in the labor force?

And the ACA sign up rate?Are people in prison insured?

And do they have morally upstanding Obamacare policies or pre-Obamacare subpar policies?

To the extent that people who end up in prison would have been less likely to be employed or even in the labor force than the remaining population, it lowers unemployment and increases the labor force participation rate (as this is based on the non-institutionalized civilian population).

By the way, according to the Obama Administration, the crime rate went up in 2011 and then again in 2012 (2013 won't be reported for 9 months):

Why did prison admission rates continue rising for fifteen years after the crime rate peaked? I can think of a number of plausible explanations, but I'm curious as to what the actual reason is.

Are you seriously asking why the crime rate went down as we put more people in prison?

Are you related to Fox Butterfield?

He's asking why we put more people in prison as the crime rate went down, but yeah I think the same explanation holds

The curve immediately begins to move down after the release from prison in March 2005 of super-dangerous felon Martha Stewart. The pool of social deviants learned a lesson from the punishment of the domestic diva and incarcerations have continued to fall ever since.

The outrage from Alex and others over the whole "serious time for nothing more than drug possession" may — or may not — be greatly misplaced.

Back when I covered crime stories, cops and prosecutors told me on several occasions that they only pursued possession charges that carried serious jail time against people they knew to be serious criminals. Basically, it was the "Get Capone for tax evasion" strategy.

I'm not sure if they were even telling the truth, let alone whether this is a common tactic by law enforcement, but it strikes me as plausible. I knew a fair number of prosecutors in my day (though not, to be sure all that well) and none of them struck me like people who wanted to put otherwise upstanding citizens in prison for 5 years over drugs owned for personal use.

Any research on this?

People who are in prison for drug "possession" are typically drug dealers who plea-bargained down.

Or people caught with guns and drugs, who pled to the drugs, or people caught with drugs and some other offense that was unprovable due to "no snitchin" culture and gang intimidation but were convicted on the drugs because the drugs speak for themselves. Anyone who thinks that people are sent to prison just for drug possession are incredibly naive and clueless.

A felony drug possession charge even without a prison sentence will make employment quite difficult to find.

If employers don't want to hire druggies, I can't blame 'em

...yes and possessing a drug once is enough to assume a person is a "druggie"?

The state governments are nearing the end of their fiscal ropes. Something had to give way, and in this case it is incarceration. Expect the trend to continue for some time.

+1, c.f. California.

I'm not sure how meaningful this is without considering demographics, since he uses the entire US population counts. It's well understood that crime rates are not distributed proportionally across gender and age. And this matters because during the same time period that was covered, the age distribution of the US population changed in a direction that would predict lower crime rates.

A better comparison would have used the population of 16-25 year old males or something of that nature. (Not to offend the women in the audience, or the elderly, but you are just not doing your fair share of the crimes.)

As any Inventory manager would tell you, stock matters . Higher stock often implies lower inputs because of carrying cost implications. You can't ignore stock.

I understand that some states (e.g. California) are imprisoning more people long-term in jails rather than prisons because of prison overcrowding and budgetary number-shuffling. Do these statistics take that into account?

This is true. Court-ordered (state) prison release has put a huge burden on (local) jails, and has made them more like prisons (gangs, lots of serious/violent offenders) whereas previously they were fairly benign places for people who just made a mistake. Heather MacDonald had a good article on this in City Journal.

In the article the guy says "I used the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics data to compute the annual rate of admissions to state/federal prison," which suggests this may only be prisons and not jails. Also, of course, it doesn't include people on parole or probation.

But this year-old Bureau of Justice Statistics press release says that the portion of the U.S. population under correctional supervision declined in 2011 to the lowest rate since 2000. Of course, this doesn't account for changing demographics (more old people with less propensity to commit crimes, and along with that males making up a smaller portion of the population due to differences in life expectancy).

Actually I guess the male/female sex ratio actually grew a bit between 2000 and 2010:

The Census tells us that from 2000 to 2010 the U.S. population grew by 9.7 percent, but the population of 18- to 44-years-old only grew 0.6 percent.

Look again. According to Table 2, 15-29 (i.e., prime age for criminality) grew by about 10%. It is only because 30-44 dropped so dramatically that the 18-44 combined may have only grew 0.6%.

I'm glad to see that our harsh prison sentences have been heard by the would be criminals.

Kevin Drum argues that taking lead out of the air lead to the decrease in crime in a number of places. His latest is here: I doubt that there is any proven link to the reduction of lead in the environment to the reduction of crime. Any one have any citations for this?

The ACLU has done a thorough job looking at rates of incarceration for marijuana possession from 2001 to 2010 here:

They state, "The report finds that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88% of which were for possession. Marijuana arrests have increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52%) of all drug arrests in the United States, and marijuana possession arrests account for nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws."

They go on to show that marijuana laws are more likely to be enforced against blacks than whites by a four to one margin despite equal use of marijuana in the white/black population. Could it be that the extraordinary arrest rate among blacks could contribute to the breakdown of the black family?

Any way I am sure that the ACLU study is wrong. Anyone got any references to prove it?

This wikipedia page is interesting, too:

We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. It's good to number one.

Because, as explained by several people above, arrests for mere possession do not lead to incarceration. And the racial disparity stats are bullshit too, unless you start from the shitlib ACLU premise that cops just hate black people for no reason and go out of their way to harm them. Maybe blacks are more likely to get caught and therefore arrested, because they are (surprise!) stupider about how and when to use it to avoid detection, more likely to be small time dealers (there is an intermediate dimebag/gram level in the ghetto supply chain that mostly doesn't exist in the middle class), more likely to be involved in situations where cops are called for other reasons (in my old mixed neighborhood, the black house parties were notorious for fights getting out of control and cops being called), and more likely to adopt the oppositional FUCK THA POH-LICE attitude that results in your car or your person getting searched. Sorry, you can't just show a "disparity" at the 10,000 foot level and conclude MUST BE THOSE RACIST WHITE ASSHOLE COPS/EMPLOYERS/TEACHERS/TEST MAKERS/CRIME VICTIMS.

I mean, I'm sure as with all these statistics Asians fare best of all, so I guess we must instantly conclude that cops are biased against whites and in favor of Asians. Can't help but notice the word "Asian" doesn't appear anywhere except Footnote 29, discussing Alaska and Hawaii, which is itself worth reading as a pretty amazing display of shitlib doublethink.

Nice rebuttal!

I'll forward to ACLU. I'm sure, faced with this evidence, that they will recant!

Is there "equal use of marijuana in the white/asian population"?

Are there any differences between populations in anything? Your shitlib kneejerk reactions seems to be NO, THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE unless it reflects badly on Whites. Physician, heal thyself

Why are you sure the ACLU study is wrong? Because it makes you feel bad?

Inability to recognize sarcasm is a counterindication of intelligence.

You are a terrible racist

.....and sadly, I think he's quite proud of it too.

This 2008 study finds marijuana use twice as prevalent among White / Hispanic students as among Blacks.

Anyone know why this huge disparity with the ACLU results? Is the difference due to a non-representative college sample?

Probably because the ACLU started with a conclusion and chose the data that made their conclusion look more likely

Hi Mike,

I forwarded your reply to the ACLU.

They replied that you had no facts.

Anyway, since no one can dispute either the lead hypothesis or the ACLU report, they both stand.


I hate seeing the Marginal Revolution comment threads destroyed by people like you.

Dear Sir/Madam,
Please find the detail proposal of Vocational Training for Women of the Prisoner's Families 2014/15. Prisons Mission Society is officially registered with the Government of Pakistan. Prisons Mission Society is working for the welfare of prisoners in the field of Education, Health and Social Sectors and feeling proud to arrange a program for the welfare of poor and deserving prisoners in Pakistan Prisons, which is a part of our evangelism in non-Christian and to promotion the education skills of prisoners as well as character and makes the prisoners a useful citizen and makes them a part of development of this country. Increasing numbers of peoples in Pakistan are living below the poverty line. These peoples are not given the rights of survival, protection, development and participation.
I have observed that if a bread winner got imprisonment and in jail then his/her family captures by hunger and their living standard come down in the society because they have not resources for the release that person in the jail and they cannot afford the expenditures of their family and their children’s con not get proper education. So in this way their future is destroyed and most of them young girls and women are force to work other houses in the rich persons, where these young girls and women are treated very badly and face many difficulties. The primary services and programs of Prisons Mission Society Pakistan are mission driven and are designed to minister healing and restoration of individuals and families affected by imprisonment. We are committed to Hook (Outreach), Heal (emotional & spiritual restoration) and Help (Transitional assistance) through our programs keeping innocent women and young girls safe. Therefore, we have planned to provide vocational training to the 50 women and girls of prisoner’s families.
The birth of the Prisons Mission Society came when ,I got life sentence in July 1986.I have a crucial experience during the time when, I was in prison for 12 years due to injustice. There I observed closely how people suffer in the prisons without hope. Sometimes due to their illness and many other reasons they cannot see any light in their dark future. Even very skilled inmates do not have the chance to improve their lives anyway, but I set the challenge by completing my education from Matriculation, F.A, B.A, Diploma in further studies in Urdu, Diploma in further studies in Punjabi & M.A.being in prison, living among them and having given them the example that education can make acceptable in society once again. I have done Master of Divinity from Gujranwala Theological Seminary Gujranwala Pakistan. Even the criminals can be make to educate, I was put in prison when, I was hardly 13, due to none of my fault in the case but God made it possible that I got released after 12 years. At the times of my release, I decided to serve the community which, I left behind in prisons. My aim to love and serve all human kind. In 1999 after my release, I founded the Prisons Mission Society.
You’re pray and support is fruitfulness for our program, which would be great blessing and encouragement for us. We look forward for your possible co-operation in our ministry and pray that May Almighty Lord make you a part of our mission.
Thank you. God bless you.
Yours truly,

Rev.Maurice Shahbaz

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