05.29a Clayton Cramer on Increasing Prison Populations; "Life" Sentences of 29 Years in Prison; African-American Crimes Rates. A recent government report on prison statistics has attracted some comment, and I did a bit of websurfing on it. The table above comes from "State Rates of Incarceration by Race," The Sentencing Project, 2004, and I'll return to it later. Clayton Cramer has useful things to say about why a one-time change to stricter sentencing will cause the prison population to keep rising even if crime rates fall as a result:

If you don't understand why, consider this hypothetical, with a small state prison, when a tough new sentencing law goes into effect:

1991: 500 inmates in prison

1992: 100 new inmates get sent up the river; 50 existing inmates are released or die; 550 total inmates

1993: 95 new inmates get locked up; 55 existing inmates die or leave; 590 total

1994: 93 new inmates; 59 die or leave; 624 total

1995: 90 new inmates; 62 die or leave; 652 total

1996: 85 new inmates; 65 die or leave; 672 total

In each of these years, the number of new inmates drops because of falling crime rates; 10% die or complete their terms--yet the total number of inmates continues to rise.

The Sentencing Project is an organization hostile to long prison terms. It has various reports on prison statistics. One of them is THE MEANING OF "LIFE": LONG PRISON SENTENCES IN CONTEXT BY MARC MAUER, RYAN S. KING, AND MALCOLM C. YOUNG MAY 2004 , which on page 12 says

Using data on prison populations and releases from the Bureau of Justice Statistics we have developed estimates for the amount of time that lifers will serve in prison.18 (See Appendix for a description of this methodology.) Our analysis indicates that from 1991 to 1997 there was a 37% increase in time to be served by lifers prior to release. Persons admitted in 1991 could expect to serve an average of 21.2 years, a figure which rose to 29 years by 1997 (most recent figures available). Thus, in contrast to popular imagery which sometimes portrays lifers as serving short prison terms, the average life sentence today results in nearly three decades of incarceration.

Of course, this seems to me to actually confirm that "life" sentences are not for life-- they are for 29 years. If you're 20 when you commit your murder, you get out at age 49. Moreover, page 9 says that one of every four lifers is serving a sentence of "life without parole". Presumably the rest are getting out of prison before they die. In four states-- Illinois, Iowa, Maine, and South Dakota-- and in the federal system, a life sentence always means life without parole, although the governor or President can always grant clemency. But in the other states, "life" just is a word to fool the public into thinking the sentence is longer than it is.

(What they say in the Appendix is that the 29-year figure is the population of life prisoners currently divided by the flow of releases that year. In a steady state, this will be the average sentence. This is suspect. For one thing, they don't say whether "releases" includes deaths or not. For another, this estimate not only assumes that present policies are maintained in the future-- a desirable assumption to make, since some assumption has to be made about future policy-- but, I think (I might be wrong) that the present policy is the same as the one followed in the past, which we know is false. If, for example, present releases are high because the existing stock was admitted under a policy in which "life" meant easy parole, then 29-years is an underestimate of what a currently sentenced prisoner might expect.)

The high imprisonment rates of African-Americans are another subject covered extensively by the Sentencing Project. The Sentencing Project insinuates that this is because of racism, but without convincing evidence (they cite self-reports of criminality from surveys, and arrest rates as compared to imprisonment rates, neither of which indicates racism). The table at the top of this weblog entry from "State Rates of Incarceration by Race," The Sentencing Project, 2004 shows the ratio of black to white imprisonment rates per 100,000 in the particular population. The District of Columbia is the highest, with a ratio of 28.9. We hardly think of the D.C. government as being anti-black. Then comes New Jersey, Iowa, Minnesota, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, all above 10. The bottom of the list has Hawaii (1.3), Idaho (2.8 ), Alaska, Mississippi, and Georgia (4.0-4.1). Are those the least racist states? The first three, maybe, but not Mississippi and Georgia. I wonder what is going on. It certainly is interesting that the rates vary from state to state, and might shed some light on why black crime rates are so much higher on average. Note too, from The Crisis of the Young African American Male and the Criminal Justice System, by Marc Mauer, that

49% of prison inmates nationally are African American, compared to their 13% share of the overall population.


In 1954, at the time of the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, African Americans constituted about 30% of persons admitted to state and federal prisons.

The Crisis of the Young African American Male and the Criminal Justice System, by Marc Mauer also has this appalling statistic:

Nearly one in three (32%) black males in the age group 20-29 is under some form of criminal justice supervision on any given day -- either in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

I wonder what percentage of 30-year-old black males has been in prison or jail or on probation or parole at some time during their lives? ... [in full at 04.05.29a.htm]

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