Wisconsin Prisoners, c. 1960

As part of my ongoing research into the origins of mass incarceration, I’ve been spending some time recently with a voluminous, fifty-year-old government report by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Characteristics of State Prisoners, 1960.  This was a once-a-decade production by the BOP in those days, and it contains a wealth of information.

I find it fascinating to have this window into 1960, for at that time — unbeknownst to the report’s authors, of course — everything in American criminal justice was just about to change forever.  In fact, crime was already on the rise in the Northeast United States, foreshadowing a nationwide swell of violence that would continue to gather force until well into the 1970′s.  Even today, we have yet to return to the historically low levels of criminal violence of the mid-twentieth century.  And then, on the heels of the crime wave, came the great imprisonment boom — a period of unprecedented growth in American incarceration that began in about 1975 and continued uninterrupted for more than three decades.

Yes, it is easy to imagine 1960 as a more innocent time!

Using the state breakdowns from the 1960 report, I’ve drawn some comparisons between the Wisconsin prison population of then and now:  

 

 

1960

2010

Prisoners

2,183

23,250

Wisconsin residents

3.9 mm

5.7 mm

Prisoners per 100,000 residents

56

408

Homicides

50

155

Violent crimes

1,261

14,142

Drug offenders in prison

44

2,962

Sex offenders in prison

258

4,633

Most common offense of prisoners

Burglary

Sex offenses

Lifers

70

1,131

Female prisoners

64

1,290

Male/female ratio

33:1

17:1

Non-white prisoners

466

10,400

Even taking into account state population growth, there has been a huge increase in the size of Wisconsin’s prison population.  On the other hand, though, the increase in imprisonment is actually closely comparable to the increase in reported violent crime since 1960, which may provide a justification for our current high incarceration rate.  But, on yet another hand, the FBI violent crime index is not considered a terribly reliable measure for comparisons over time.  (In fact, we’ve been having a controversy just this year here in Milwaukee over the reporting of aggravated assault, which is a key component of the FBI’s violent crime figure.)  Homicide numbers are considered more reliable, and the rise in homicide since 1960 has been much less than the rise in prisoners.  Bottom line, though: it’s hard to draw conclusions based solely on data over time about whether we have too much incarceration today.

Other notable facts that emerge from the comparison: the numbers of sex and drug offenders in prison have truly skyrocketed, growing at a far greater rate than the rest of the prison population; lifers are becoming an increasingly common part of the state prison population; women have made a great deal of “progress” toward equality in incarceration; and the non-white prison population (which is dominated by blacks) has grown at a much faster rate than the white population.

The 2010 data come from the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s January 2011 information paper on the state’s adult corrections program.

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