My New Book Is Out

My new book, Prisons and Punishment in America: Examining the Facts, is now available. Structured as a series of questions and answers, the book synthesizes the law and social science on sentencing, corrections, and prisoner reentry. Individual chapters cover:

  • Sentencing law and practice
  • Alternatives to incarceration
  • Experience and consequences of incarceration
  • Release and life after prison
  • Women, juveniles, and other special offender populations
  • Causes and significance of mass incarceration in the United States
  • Race, ethnicity, and punishment
  • Public opinion, politics, and reform

The book is intended to be accessible to readers who do not have training in law or social science, but I also hope that there are some aspects of the book that will be of interest even to those who are already quite familiar with the workings of the criminal justice system.

Race and Risk Assessment

Risk-assessment has become all the rage in American criminal justice. In jurisdictions across the country, criminal-justice officials are utilizing increasingly sophisticated risk-assessment tools, which can be used to predict a given offender’s likelihood to reoffend based on his criminal history and a number of other variables. These predictive evaluations can be brought to bear at several important decisional points in the criminal process: pretrial release, diversion into treatment, sentencing, and others.

Although risk assessment has been widely applauded for its potential to support increased efficiency in the use of scarce criminal-justice resources, a recurring criticism has been that leading risk-assessment tools have built-in racial biases. A particular concern has been the heavy reliance on criminal history; to the extent that criminal history reflects biased actions by police or others in the past, then predictions based on that history may tend to overestimate the relative risk posed by minority defendants. Thus, for instance, a black defendant and a white defendant whose actual risk levels are identical could potentially receive quite different risk scores, leading to quite different bail or sentencing decisions.

Such concerns find some support in the empirical research.

A new study, however, reaches more reassuring conclusions, at least with respect to one risk-assessment tool used in federal court.  Continue reading “Race and Risk Assessment”

U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up

Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.

The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.

Here are a few additional observations:

Continue reading “U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up”

Milwaukee Arrests, Part IV: Racial Disparity Story Similar in Chicago, Sort Of

In the first post in this series, I explored the persistent racial disparities in Milwaukee arrests.  How does Chicago compare?  In a nutshell, the overall disparity rates are remarkably similar in Milwaukee and Chicago, but the War on Drugs drives the disparities to a much greater extent in the Windy City than here.

Let’s start by taking a look at black and white arrest rates in Chicago since 2000:

Chicago Arrests

As is apparent, arrest rates have been coming down for both races, but white rates remain well below black.

Here is what has been happening in Milwaukee during the same time period:   Continue reading “Milwaukee Arrests, Part IV: Racial Disparity Story Similar in Chicago, Sort Of”

New US DOJ “Smart on Crime” Policy

AG Holder’s remarks to the ABA earlier this week, announcing new DOJ initiatives, are here.  The related “Smart on Crime” report is here.  Press coverage of the Holder speech focused on the announcement that federal prosecutors would no longer seek to have “draconian” mandatory minimums imposed on low-level drug offenders, but there are other interesting aspects to the new policy, including expanded compassionate release for federal prisoners and a new focus on reentry and collateral consequences.

It seems to me that just about everything here could have been said, and should have been said, two decades ago by AG Reno.  Still, better late than never . . . .

Ironic that this federal backing away from mandatory minimums occurs the very same week we see a push in Wisconsin for new mandatory minimums at the state level.

Black Defendants 28% Less Likely to Receive Pretrial Diversion Than Similarly Situated Whites

Pretrial diversion into drug treatment and other rehabilitative programs helps to save many defendants each year from the stigma and other negative consequences of a criminal conviction.  Overall, about eight percent of felony defendants in large urban counties are diverted.  Is this benefit distributed fairly among different racial and ethnic groups?  New research by Traci Schlesinger suggests not.

Schlesinger analyzed data on pretrial diversion in felony cases in urban counties from 1990 to 2006.  Even controlling for offense severity and criminal history, Schlesinger found that black defendants were about twenty-eight percent less likely, and Hispanic defendants about thirteen percent less likely, to receive pretrial diversion than non-Hispanic white defendants.

Schlesinger’s article is forthcoming in Race and Justice.

Arrest Trends in Milwaukee, 1980-2011–Part One

Earlier this month, the ACLU released this interesting report on arrests for marijuana possession. The ACLU found a steady increase since 1990 in the number of arrests nationally for possession of pot. By 2010, arrests for this crime had come to account for nearly half of all drug arrests. Moreover, the ACLU also found that racial disparities in marijuana arrests increased right along with the number of arrests, even though surveys indicate that whites and blacks use marijuana at about equal rates.

Neither Wisconsin nor Milwaukee County performed well on the racial disparity front. Statewide, blacks are six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, which is considerably higher than the national average of 3.73. Milwaukee County’s disparity number was also above the national average at 4.7.

Coincidentally, at about the same time the ACLU released its report, the federal government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics unveiled a new on-line, interactive arrest-data tool, which permits detailed searches of arrest data from individual cities dating back to 1980. I thought it would be interesting to examine Milwaukee’s numbers over time. I focused on arrests by the Milwaukee Police Department, which differed from the ACLU’s focus on county-level data. (The MPD is only one of several law enforcement agencies in Milwaukee County, albeit the single largest.)

The first graph below shows the annual number of arrests by the MPD by race. Unfortunately, no data were available for 1986, 1998-2000, or 2004; otherwise, every year from 1980 through 2011 is included.   Continue reading “Arrest Trends in Milwaukee, 1980-2011–Part One”

Perceptions of Disorder: It’s Not Just the Broken Windows

The broken windows theory famously proposes that major crimes in a neighborhood result, at least in part, from small signs of disorder in the neighborhood, like broken windows.  But a broken window can mean very different things to different people: to one person, it may indicate that the neighborhood is falling apart, but to another it may simply be an isolated blemish that is expected to be repaired in due course.  Perceptions of disorder likely matter more than objective indicia of disorder, and perceptions might or might not correspond in any straightforward way to observable realities.

So what drives perceptions of disorder?  Some research suggests that an increasing minority presence in a neighborhood tends to increase perceptions of disorder, even holding objective signs of disorder constant.  Other research focuses on perceptions of minority presence, which are associated with perceptions of disorder and fear of crime.

Now, an interesting new article by Rebecca Wickes and coauthors explores how these dynamics vary by neighborhood and city.

Continue reading “Perceptions of Disorder: It’s Not Just the Broken Windows”

Riding the Punitive Roller Coaster

Public support for punitive criminal-justice policies has risen and fallen repeatedly since 1951, Mark Ramirez demonstrates in an extensive new analysis of historical polling data.  Although some commentators characterize the punitive attitudes of Americans as a constant, Ramirez shows that the strength of these attitudes has varied over time.

Measuring public punitiveness has proven difficult.  Simply asking people whether they are punitive seems unlikely to produce helpful results, given the uncertainty and abstraction of the term.  On the other hand, asking about support for any specific criminal-justice policy might or might nor produce answers that are reflective of more general attitudes.  Intuitively, for instance, support for the death penalty would seem a good indicator that a person would also support a range of other policies that are typically characterized as punitive, such as three-strikes laws, but it is hard to rule out the possibility that the death penalty is a unique issue in the minds of many Americans; support may be due, say, to religious beliefs or particular feelings regarding the crime of murder, rather than more general attitudes toward crime and criminals.

Ramirez attempted to overcome this difficulty by aggregating survey responses to several different criminal-justice policy questions.  He identified 24 different survey questions that were asked by national pollsters at least twice between 1951 and 2006.  Many of the questions related to the death penalty, but others touched on three-strikes laws, drug enforcement, law-enforcement spending, imprisonment, and sentencing more generally.  Although the levels of support for different punitive policies varied, they tended to move in unison over time, suggesting that there really is some shifting, underlying attitude that drives support for all of the different policies.

Based on the survey data, Ramirez compiled a year-by-year punitiveness index.

Continue reading “Riding the Punitive Roller Coaster”

Wisconsin #1 in Black Incarceration; How Did We Get Here?

new report from the UWM Employment and Training Institute shows that Wisconsin leads the nation in incarcerating black males.  Based on data from the 2010 U.S. census, Wisconsin incarcerates about one in every eight of its black men between the ages of 18 and 64.  This includes individuals held in state and local correctional facilities.  The Badger State’s black incarceration rate is, in fact, about one-third higher than that of the second-place state, Oklahoma, and nearly double the national average.

Wisconsin also leads the nation in incarcerating Native-American males, but its white-male incarceration rate (one-tenth of the black rate) closely tracks the national average.  Wisconsin’s Hispanic incarceration rate is actually below the national average.

The Milwaukee County data are particularly striking: more than half of the County’s black males between the ages of 30 and 44 have been or currently are housed in a state correctional institution.

Is this a recent phenomenon?  I’ve taken a look at some historical data on racial disparities for my three-states research.  The following graph indicates that Wisconsin has been above Indiana and Minnesota for some time in black imprisonment (that is, black prisoners per 100,000 black residents), but that the current wide gap did not really open up until after 1990:

Continue reading “Wisconsin #1 in Black Incarceration; How Did We Get Here?”