Why still so many Americans in prison?


Why are there so many Americans in prison?  Why did the incarceration rate continue to rise even though the rate of violent crime went down?

I thought for a long time that the main reasons were that so many young men, especially black men, were imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and that state laws required judges to impose long sentences even when the crimes were relatively trivial.

But John Pfaff, a Fordham law professor, has done an analysis indicating that, even if you fixed these two things, the U.S. prison population would only decline a little bit.

What then is the problem?  Pfaff said the increased prison population is due to zealous prosecutors.  In 1994, someone who was arrested faced a one change in three that a prosecutor would file felony charges.  By 2008, the odds of a felony charge were two in three.  Statistically, he said, this explains most of the increase.

It is not obvious what to do.  Prosecutors don’t a name for themselves, nor increase their chances of higher office, by exercising restraint.


Mass incarceration: A provocative new theory for why so many Americans are in prison by Leon Neyfakh for Slate.  (Hat tip to Mike the Mad Biologist)

The Imprisoner’s Dilemma by Oliver Roeder for FiveThirtyEight.  (Hat tip to kottke.org)  More statistics and analysis.  [Added 2/14/15]

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4 Responses to “Why still so many Americans in prison?”

  1. thetinfoilhatsociety Says:

    That’s easy – because prisons have become a very big for-profit business. If you make more things criminal, and you punish people with fines and jail time for those criminal things, and you send people back to prison if they can’t afford the fines, then you turn a profit.


  2. Willowwisp Says:

    It’s easy to throw people away rather than spend the time to help them


  3. williambearcat Says:

    Perhaps, the crimes are more vicious than in the past. Perhaps crime is decreasing because we have criminals locked up and unable to do crime.Perhaps we have more categories of crime much like schools where behavior once was handled by the teacher now is more likely to have the police involved. I would like to think that all our problems, criminal acts not the only one, could be solved by changing one thing. I think that our problems are complex and that maybe, just maybe, zealous prosecutors is one among many.


  4. prayerwarriorpsychicnot Says:

    Reblogged this on Citizens, not serfs.


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