Crime in the United States
Aug 15th 2002
After surging in the late 1980s, crime rates in the United States began falling in the early 1990s. The reason why is hotly disputed. Cities such as Boston and New York have done particularly well. Well-publicised scandals also brought a shift in public attitudes: instead of fearing criminals, many Americans are now more scared of over-aggressive and corrupt policing.
Some say America’s low crime rate is explained by its booming prison population. But critics point out that prisons are breeding grounds for new gangs and that a tough crime policy has many unintended and unwelcome consequences. Supporters of firearms and capital punishment have meanwhile come under attack after a series of juvenile killings and revelations that the death penalty often punishes the innocent. After nine years in remission, crime is increasing, though it is too early to tell if the crime drop has hit bottom. A spate of child abductions has raised apparently unfounded fears of a kidnapping “epidemic”.
Aug 8th 2002
From The Economist print edition
America’s tough crime policy is having unintended consequences
TODAY is a special day for 1,600 American men and women: they are being released from a state or federal prison. Tomorrow will be a special day for another 1,600 people. As will be the day after that. Some 600,000 inmates will leave prison this year—more than the population of Washington, DC. After quadrupling its imprisonment rate in just 30 years—America now has 700 people in every 100,000 under lock and key, five times the proportion in Britain, the toughest sentencer in Western Europe—the world’s most aggressive jailer must now confront the iron law of imprisonment: that those who go in almost always come out.
The result is a society that, statistically at least, is beginning to look a little like early Australia. Nearly one in eight American men has been convicted of a felony—and thus, in many states, has been automatically deprived of numerous rights, including the right to vote. One in 20 men has been to jail. The average is much higher among some groups (one black man in five has been to prison, one in three has been convicted of a felony). These convicts, particularly those who have been to prison, contribute little good to the places where they live. Two-thirds of ex-prisoners are rearrested within three years. Prisons are a breeding-ground for terrible diseases, both medical (such as AIDS) and social (the Aryan Brotherhood), that soon spread to the outside world.
The high rates of imprisonment are partly related to the number of crimes committed in America; but they also reflect a determined policy to increase the number of mandatory sentences, particularly for drug offences. Since the 1980s, laws have limited the discretion both of judges to make the punishment fit the crime and of parole boards to determine when prisoners are fit to be released. In the ten years after 1986, the average term in federal prison rose from 39 to 54 months.
Did it work?
This offensive against crime is generally held to be a success. America’s crime rate has fallen in recent years, and though it has now started to rise again, no politician in America thinks that arguing for more lenient treatment of criminals will bring in votes. That does not mean that it would be wrong to do so. Put simply, America probably sends people to prison too willingly, and looks after them too carelessly afterwards. Some believe that the upturn in the crime rate is directly linked to the number of unreformed ex-convicts on America’s streets.
There is a good case for opposing tough mandatory sentences merely on moral grounds. Locking up a young woman for ten years just because her boyfriend was a drug-dealer ill becomes a civilised country. But there are also practical doubts about America’s sentencing policy. The lower crime figures may have had more to do with demography (fewer young men around) and changes in policing than with sentencing policy. Once you compare like with like, a different picture emerges. America’s fiercest imprisoner, Texas, which locks up more than 1,000 people for every 100,000 citizens, has far worse crime statistics than New York state, where the imprisonment rate has risen much more slowly. And when it comes to drugs and violent crime, the two plagues hard sentencing was supposed to cure, it has failed dramatically. Drug-taking is as widespread as ever, and America’s murder rate is still nearly four times higher than the European Union’s.
The argument about sentencing is an old one. So the clamour emanating from it has tended to obscure the other side of the debate—whether America treats its prisoners and felons too roughly. That deafness may be deliberate: for many Americans, sentencing has now become purely a matter of punishment. But it surely behoves those who favour sending ever more people to prison to try to make prison work better. Each prisoner who emerges unreformed will start committing crimes again (a more frightening thought when you realise that one in four commits violent crimes). Even if such people are caught quickly, it costs money to imprison them: America spends more than $50 billion a year on its prison system.
From the land of second chances to the land of no hope
Rehabilitation has become something of a dirty word in American debates about crime. Prisons the world over are fairly awful places, with a poor record of converting people from a life of crime. Even so, America’s system seems peculiarly devised to ensure that prisoners remain criminals.
To begin with, some rehabilitation projects—particularly drug treatment—seem to work. Yet America has slashed money for such schemes, often to pay for new prisons. One advantage of leaving some degree of discretion over sentencing to parole boards was that it obliged prisoners to prove that they were ready for outside life. This incentive has now gone. Outside prison, the aftercare system is even weaker. Many ex-cons are simply presented with a one-way bus ticket. The number of prisoners for each parole officer has risen by 50%.
These deficiencies might all be described as failures of care. Worse still are those of discrimination. Trying to restart life as a felon is difficult for all sorts of reasons; in America, the government loads on many more. There is a long list of jobs from which felons are banned, many of them having nothing to do with security. In some cases they are denied housing benefit. And, of course, nearly 5m of them are denied the vote. So a convict can pay taxes, own property, send his children to school. Ought he also to be deprived, permanently in many cases, of a voice in how society is governed?
This question matters, because it goes to the root of how America treats criminals. Punishment requires a fixed term. In justice, just as much as in literature, every sentence finishes, eventually, with a full stop. After that the ex-convict should enjoy the same rights as anybody else. He has served his time. America is not alone in denying its convicts the vote. But it seems odd that a country built on giving people a second chance (and a country, incidentally, with one of the most forgiving bankruptcy laws in the world) should have turned against this principle so savagely when it comes to convicts. Particularly now that it is creating so many of them.
Copyright © 2002 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved
Prison and beyond
A stigma that never fades
Aug 8th 2002 | CHICAGO
From The Economist print edition
America may want to rethink a system that creates so many hardened criminals
AT THE end of August, Mike, a 31-year-old Latino from Chicago’s south side, will walk away from prison a free man. Again. This is his second long prison term for dealing in drugs and stealing cars; he has been in and out of jail a dozen times. He will be released into the same community where he has found trouble so many times before; he will attempt to reunite with his five children born to several different mothers. “Nothing really scares me about leaving,” says Mike. “It’s just the thought of coming back.”
America’s incarceration rate was roughly constant from 1925 to 1973, with an average of 110 people behind bars for every 100,000 residents. By 2000, however, the rate of incarceration in state and federal prisons had more than quadrupled, to 478. America has overtaken Russia as the world’s most aggressive jailer. When local jails are included in the American tally, the United States locks up nearly 700 people per 100,000, compared with 102 for Canada, 132 for England and Wales, 85 for France and a paltry 48 in Japan. Roughly 2m Americans are currently behind bars, with some 4.5m on parole or on probation (the probationers are on suspended sentences). Another 3m Americans are ex-convicts who have served their sentences and are no longer under the control of the justice system.
Christopher Uggen and Melissa Thompson, sociologists at the University of Minnesota, and Jeff Manza, a sociologist at Northwestern University near Chicago, have done rough calculations suggesting that some 13m Americans—7% of the adult population and nearly 12% of the men—have been found guilty of a serious crime. Not all of these have been behind bars but, legally speaking, the felony conviction is the crucial distinction. American job applicants are asked whether they have been convicted of a felony, not whether they have served time. And the figures for some parts of the population are much higher than the overall averages. Roughly one in five black men has been incarcerated at some point in his life; one in three has been convicted of a felony.
How did it happen?
The imprisonment rate is tied to the crime rate. America has a high number of violent criminals, particularly those who use guns; America’s homicide rate is five to seven times higher than the rate in most industrialised countries, according to Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project in Washington, DC.
But America is also “tough on crime”. For similar offences, an American convict is more likely to go to prison and to draw a longer sentence than his European peer. America has taken a particularly punitive approach to its drugs problem. The incarceration rate for drug offences was 15 inmates per 100,000 adults in 1980; by 1996, it was 148 inmates per 100,000 adults.
This keenness to lock people up is matched by a complete lack of interest in them when they get out. Which they do—and faster than you might think. The average prison sentence is still only 28 months. Two-fifths of state prisoners will be released in the next 12 months.
The typical inmate goes into prison disadvantaged by almost every measure. He is more likely than other Americans to be poor and poorly educated, to have a sorry employment record, to be a junkie, to be mentally ill, and to be a member of a minority group. A survey of Californian inmates found that half were functionally illiterate. Prison could fix some of those social disadvantages; usually it does not. So the typical inmate is released from prison with all the problems he went in with—plus a prison record that makes finding a job or a place to live even harder.
When inmates walk away from a state prison in Illinois, they are given $10, a set of street clothes and a one-way bus or train ticket to some approved destination. They leave the structured environment of prison, in which they are at least guaranteed a bed, meals and basic health care, and return to a world full of temptations, often to the very neighbourhood in which they first fell foul of the law.
Charles, a boyish-looking 25-year-old who has spent three-and-a-half years in prison for guns and drugs offences, will be released this year. He worries both about his old friends, who have not mended their ways, and his old enemies, who may still have scores to settle. “There’s people who left here and got killed the first day,” he says.
A survey of employers in five large cities found that 65% would not knowingly hire an ex-convict. Many would not be allowed to do so legally anyway. Another facet of the “tough on crime” movement has been to exclude ex-convicts from certain kinds of employment. In Illinois, ex-felons are banned from some 57 different professions, including such jobs as manicurist and barber, says Diane Williams, president of Chicago’s Safer Foundation, a non-profit organisation that helps ex-offenders.
Ex-convicts, whose families are often less than enthusiastic about their return, can also be excluded from public housing. Three-quarters of inmates leaving prison have been on drugs; one in five has a mental illness. It should be no surprise that ex-inmates have high rates of unemployment and homelessness.
The sentencing laws also skew the system in another way. Sentences used to be indeterminate: a man might get five to 20 years, with a parole board deciding when he was to be released. In the mid-1970s, three in four American prisoners were released only after appearing before a parole board. This process annoyed both left-wingers, who complained that it was racially biased, and conservatives, who objected to letting prisoners out “early”. Now only 30% of prisoners appear before parole boards; the rest are released when they have done their time, whether they are prepared for life outside or not.
Of course, most of these people are released conditionally, usually for a period of parole in which they must live by certain rules (such as staying off drugs). But nowadays a typical parole officer may be responsible for 50% more people on parole than he was in the 1970s. Methods of broad surveillance, such as drug testing, have replaced more personal support and supervision. An ex-offender may have only a few short meetings with his parole officer each month. “The philosophy of the parole unit has changed,” says Jerry Butler, who joined the Safer Foundation after 31 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections. “Now they all have cars, guns, bullet-proof vests and badges.”
Unsurprisingly, more inmates are failing their first big test outside prison. In 1985, 70% of people on parole successfully completed their term; by 1999, only 42% did. Those who break their parole now account for a third of prison admissions, the fastest-growing category.
Altogether, roughly two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three years of release; 40% are already back in prison in that time. And those are just the ones who get caught. “If you return the guy to the community with $10 and a suit of clothes and no support systems, you can just about guarantee that that person is going to resort to some kind of criminal behaviour,” says Mr Butler. And the crimes the ex-inmate commits could well be nasty ones: one in four prisoners is a violent offender.
The effect of all these ex-prisoners is beginning to be felt. Inevitably, it is disproportionately large in certain areas. A study of Cleveland, Ohio, for example, found that 3% of the city’s neighbourhoods were home to 20% of the state’s ex-prisoners.
“They come back with their own baggage,” says Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health at Columbia University. They also come back dangerously ill in many cases. In 1997, a quarter of the people living with HIV or AIDS in the United States had come out of prison that year. The numbers are even higher for hepatitis C and tuberculosis. When a resistant form of TB hit New York city in the late 1980s, 80% of cases were traced to prisons.
America’s huge criminal class also has profound political implications. Most states limit the voting rights of felons and ex-felons. As a result, 4.7m Americans, or 2.3% of the voting population, have lost their rights. The figure is nearly 7% in Alabama. One in six black men cannot vote in Virginia and Kentucky. This causes alienation, and changes elections. Felons may not be enthusiastic voters, but they vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Messrs Uggen and Manza have calculated that if felons had been able to vote in Florida, Al Gore would be president.
In praise of rehab
The notion of rehabilitating prisoners went out of vogue in the 1970s, when research seemed to show that prison programmes had no effect on recidivism. New research suggests the opposite.
For example, a study of residential drug treatment within federal prisons showed that inmates who completed the programme were 73% less likely to be rearrested than those who had not completed it. Such programmes are being curtailed just as research is beginning to show they work. In 1991, one in four state-prison inmates received treatment for drug addiction; by 1997 it was one in ten. Prison-based job-education programmes have also been shown to reduce recidivism, but fewer prisoners than before now take part in them.
Jeremy Travis, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, proposes an improved version of the old parole board in which an offender’s “re-entry management” would be assigned to the judge who sentenced him to prison in the first place. The judge would oversee a plan that would include paying restitution to the victim. He would monitor the offender’s participation in relevant programmes and punish failure. Drug treatment inside prison could be linked to post-prison treatment outside. Similarly, job training in prison might be co-ordinated with work after release.
Mike and Charles are relatively lucky, as prisoners go. They are finishing their prison terms at the Crossroads Community Correctional Centre, a “transitional facility” operated by the Safer Foundation for the state of Illinois. They are enrolled in an intensive drug-treatment programme, taught about matters such as parenting and given housing assistance before release. Mike leaves the facility by day to work at a bakery; Charles works at a fast-food restaurant. Both are required to save a portion of their wages.
Will it make any difference? “There is no guarantee,” admits Mr Butler. Would-be helpers face a stunning paucity of data on what distinguishes successful ex-prisoners, but offenders who have been through the Safer Foundation are 40% less likely to be rearrested.
There are two straws to grasp. First, politicians are beginning to notice the problem. The Justice Department has recently allocated $100m in grants to help prisoners on release—a start, though not much against the $54 billion a year that America spends on its whole prison system.
Second, a few Americans are beginning to reconsider the war on drugs. A 1997 RAND study concluded that spending money to reduce drug consumption through treatment rather than incarceration would reduce serious crime 15 times more effectively. In November 2000, California’s voters passed Proposition 36, which sends first- and second-time non-violent drug offenders to treatment rather than prison.
Conwanis, a 26-year-old black man with two children, will leave prison in October after serving a three-year sentence for drug and guns offences. He failed to graduate from high school, and he also failed a high-school equivalency exam in prison that would have earned him a diploma. But he is clean of drugs (with tests to prove it) and he has been working 12-hour shifts in a transitional job at a Country Kitchen restaurant. “I can’t continue to come in and out of jail,” he says. It would be better for everyone if he made something more of his life this time.