Crime and Punishment in America

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9781250024213: Crime and Punishment in America

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When Crime and Punishment in America was first published in 1998, the national incarceration rate had doubled in just over a decade, and yet the United States remained―by an overwhelming margin―the most violent industrialized society in the world.

Today, there are several hundred thousand more inmates in the penal system, yet violence remains endemic in many American communities. In this groundbreaking and revelatory work, renowned criminologist Elliott Currie offers a vivid critique of our nation's prison policies and turns his penetrating eye toward recent developments in criminal justice, showing us the path to a more peaceable and just society. Cogent, compelling, and grounded in years of original research, this newly revised edition of Crime and Punishment in America will continue to frame the way we think about imprisonment for years to come.

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About the Author:

Elliott Currie is the author of Confronting Crime, Reckoning, and The Road to Whatever. An internationally recognized authority on youth and crime, he is a professor of criminology, law, and society at the University of California, Irvine.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1      ASSESSING THE PRISON EXPERIMENT
 
 
Just as violent crime has become part of the accepted backdrop of life in the United States, so too has the growth of the system we’ve established to contain it. A huge and constantly expanding penal system seems to us like a normal and inevitable feature of modem life. But what we have witnessed in the past quarter century is nothing less than a revolution in our justice system—a transformation unprecedented in our own history, or in that of any other industrial democracy.
I
In 1971 there were fewer than 200,000 inmates in our state and federal prisons. By the end of 1996 we were approaching 1.2 million. The prison population, in short, has nearly sextupled in the course of twenty-five years. Adding in local jails brings the total to nearly 1.7 million. To put the figure of 1.7 million into perspective, consider that it is roughly equal to the population of Houston, Texas, the fourth-largest city in the nation, and more than twice that of San Francisco. Our overall national population has grown, too, of course, but the prison population has grown much faster: as a proportion of the American population, the number behind bars has more than quadrupled. During the entire period from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, the nation’s prison incarceration rate—the number of inmates in state and federal prisons per 100,000 population—fluctuated in a narrow band between a low of 93 (in 1972) and a high of 119 (in 1961). By 1996 it had reached 427 per 100,000.
Bear in mind that these figures are averages for the country as a whole. In many states, the transformation has been even more startling. The increase in the number of prisoners in the state of Texas from 1991 to 1996 alone—about 80,000—is far larger than the total prison population of France or the United Kingdom, and roughly equal to the total prison population of Germany, a nation of over 80 million people (Texas has about 18 million). Within a few years, if current rates of increase continue, Texas’s prison population (as well as California’s) should surpass that of the entire country at the start of the 1970s. In California, nearly one in six state employees works in the prison system.
The effect of this explosion on some communities is by now well known, thanks to the work of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, and others. By the mid-1990s roughly one in three young black men were under the “supervision” of the criminal-justice system—that is, in a jail or prison, on probation or parole, or under pretrial release. The figure was two out of five in California, and over half in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. In California today, four times as many black men are “enrolled” in state prison as are enrolled in public colleges and universities. Nationally, there are twice as many black men in state and federal prison today as there were men of all races twenty years ago. More than anything else, it is the war on drugs that has caused this dramatic increase: between 1985 and 1995, the number of black state prison inmates sentenced for drug offenses rose by more than 700 percent. Less discussed, but even more startling, is the enormous increase in the number of Hispanic prisoners, which has more than quintupled since 1980 alone.
Equally dramatic changes have taken place for women. In 1970 there were slightly more than 5,600 women in state and federal prisons across the United States. By 1996 there were nearly 75,000—a thirteenfold increase. For most of the period after World War II, the female incarceration rate hovered at around 8 per 100,000; it did not reach double digits until 1977. Today it is 51 per 100,000. Women’s incarceration rates in Texas, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia now surpass the overall rates for both sexes that prevailed nationally in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At current rates of increase, there will be more women in America’s prisons in the year 2010 than there were inmates of both sexes in 1970. When we combine the effects of race and gender, the nature of these shifts in the prison population is even clearer. The prison incarceration rate for black women today exceeds that for white men as recently as 1980.
These extraordinary increases do not simply reflect a rising crime rate that has strained the capacity of a besieged justice system. Crime did rise during this period, as we’ll see; but the main reason for the stunning growth in prison populations was that the courts and legislatures did indeed get “tougher” on offenders. The National Research Council calculated in 1993 that the average prison time served per violent crime in the United States roughly tripled between 1975 and 1989 (and it has increased even further since)—mainly because offenders were more likely to be imprisoned at all once convicted, partly because many of them stayed behind bars longer once sentenced.
II
Seen in the context of a single country, even these extraordinary figures on the “boom” in imprisonment lose meaning. But when we place the American experience in international perspective its uniqueness becomes clear. The simplest way to do this is to compare different countries’ incarceration rates—the number of people behind bars as a proportion of the population. In 1995, the most recent year we can use for comparative purposes, the overall incarceration rate for the United States was 600 per 100,000 population, including local jails (but not juvenile institutions). Around the world, the only country with a higher rate was Russia, at 690 per 100,000. Several other countries of the former Soviet bloc also had high rates—270 per 100,000 in Estonia, for example, and 200 in Romania—as did, among others, Singapore (229) and South Africa (368). But most industrial democracies clustered far below us, at around 55 to 120 per 100,000, with a few—notably Japan, at 36—lower still. Spain and the United Kingdom, our closest “competitors” among the major nations of western Europe, imprison their citizens at a rate roughly one-sixth of ours; Holland and Scandinavia, about one-tenth.
Such is the magnitude of these differences that they often override one of the most powerful and universal influences on both crime and punishment—gender. Throughout the world, women make up a relatively small proportion of the prison population—less than 7 percent in the United States—and accordingly have far lower incarceration rates than men. But the incarceration rate for women in some American states is greater than the overall rate in most western European countries; the state of Oklahoma, at this writing, imprisons its female population at a rate higher than that for women and men in England or France.
The trends in the use of imprisonment over time also differ strikingly between the United States and most other advanced societies. We’ve seen that the American incarceration rate roughly quadrupled—that is, rose by about 300 percent—from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s. Between 1968 and 1987, the imprisonment rate rose by 45 percent in England and Wales, 34 percent in France, and 16 percent in the Netherlands; it fell in Western Germany by about 4 percent and in Sweden by a remarkable 26 percent (rates of imprisonment have gone up significantly in England and the Netherlands in the 1990s, but not enough to match the escalation in the United States).
These comparative incarceration rates, not surprisingly, are often taken as evidence that the United States is a more punitive country than other industrial democracies. But some people argue that this kind of comparison is intrinsically misleading. Comparing different countries’ use of imprisonment, in this view, is meaningless unless we also take into account the underlying crime rate. If the United States has more crime—or more serious crime—than other countries, then of course we’ll have more imprisonment, other things being equal. This is an important point, if it is not taken too far. Unfortunately, it often is. There is a tendency among some commentators to want to downplay America’s unusual prominence when it comes to crime and punishment, despite what the figures would seem to show. Some even want to have it both ways—arguing, almost in one breath, that the United States does not have an unusually severe crime problem and that it is not noticeably more punitive than other industrial countries. Obviously, however, that can’t be true; our high incarceration rate relative to those of other countries must mean either that we have more (or worse) crime to begin with or that we are more severe with the criminals we have, or some combination of both. It cannot come from nowhere.
In fact, the best evidence shows that America’s “exceptionalism” is indeed a combination of both factors. As we’ll see in detail later, crime is worse in the United States—especially major crimes of violence, but also some less serious offenses, including drug crimes. And though comparing sentencing practices across different countries is a very tricky enterprise, the best research suggests that we are tougher on many kinds of offenders than other industrial countries for which we have comparable data. In fact, sentences in the United States tend to be longer for all but the worst serious offenses, notably homicide—a crime for which social or cultural differences are least likely to affect sentencing policy. Every country puts away murderers, usually for a long time. Hence we would not expect large differences among countries in the way murderers are sentenced (though it is curious that those who argue that the United States isn’t especially punitive generally fail to mention that we are the onl...

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