If You Build It . . . .

The paths followed by crime and incarceration in the United States have been mirror images of one another over the past two decades.  This can be clearly seen in the graph below, which I prepared for an upcoming conference presentation.

crime and imprisonment

The graph depicts year-by-year rates of imprisonment, homicide, and violent crime (the latter based on results from the National Crime Victimization Survey), indexed to 1992 rates. The mirroring effect is most pronounced if you compare imprisonment (green line) with homicide (red): between 1993 and 1999, imprisonment goes up at almost precisely the same rate that homicide goes down; in 2000, there is an abrupt leveling off in both areas; and neither has seen a lot of change since.  The violent victimization line (blue) mostly tracks the homicide line, save for an additional three years of rapid decline (1999-2002) and a notable uptick between 2009 and 2011.

The mirror-image paths might seem counterintuitive.  Shouldn’t less crime translate into less imprisonment?  Let me suggest three theories to account for what has happened.   Continue reading “If You Build It . . . .”

The Eighth Amendment and Life Without Parole for Adults

My new article, “Not Just Kid Stuff? Extending Graham and Miller to Adults,” is now available on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

The United States Supreme Court has recently recognized new constitutional limitations on the use of life-without-parole (LWOP) sentences for juvenile offenders, but has not clearly indicated whether analogous limitations apply to the sentencing of adults. However, the Court’s treatment of LWOP as a qualitatively different and intrinsically more troubling punishment than any other sentence of incarceration does provide a plausible basis for adults to challenge their LWOP sentences, particularly when they have been imposed for nonviolent offenses or on a mandatory basis. At the same time, the Court’s Eighth Amendment reasoning suggests some reluctance to overturn sentencing practices that are in widespread use or otherwise seem to reflect deliberate, majoritarian decisionmaking. This Essay thus suggests a balancing test of sorts that may help to account for the Court’s varied Eighth Amendment decisions in noncapital cases since 1991. The Essay concludes by considering how this balancing approach might apply to the mandatory LWOP sentence established by 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A) for repeat drug offenders.

The article will appear in print in a forthcoming symposium issue of the Missouri Law Review devoted to the Supreme Court’s year-old decision in Miller v. Alabama.

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”

Milwaukee: The Most Dangerous Size

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics issued a new report compiling nearly two decades of data on gun crime, Firearm Violence, 1993-2011No doubt, many readers will pore over the report’s abundant tables and graphs looking for support for their views on gun control.  However, I was most struck by a breakdown of firearm violence based on population size (table 5).  Among the six size-based categories, the most dangerous places were cities of 500,000-999,999 — the category containing Milwaukee (pop. 597,867).  These mid-large cities not only have rates of gun crime that are about four times higher than cities of less than 100,000, but they are also forty-four percent higher than cities of one million or more.

More specifically, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there were 4.6 nonfatal firearm victimizations per 1,000 persons age twelve or older in the mid-large cities in 2010 and 2011.  (Nationally, homicides constitute only two percent of all gun-related crimes, so the NCVS numbers would not change much if fatalities were included, too.)  The second-highest rate was 3.9, for cities with 250,000-499,999.

The numbers look very different today than they did in 1996-1997, when the Milwaukee-sized cities were tied for second place with 7.3 victimizations per 1,000, and the medium-sized cities (250,000-499,999) led with 10.3.

I have two reactions to the data.  First, the relationship of community size to gun violence is in some respects predictable, and in others quite puzzling.  Continue reading “Milwaukee: The Most Dangerous Size”

The Sheriff Must Run the Jail, But How Do You Know Whether a Facility Is a Jail?

Last week, the Circuit Court in Milwaukee County rejected the effort of Sheriff David A. Clarke to maintain control over the County Correctional Facility South.  (Judge Van Grunsven’s ruling is available here.)  Although the CCF-S (formerly known as the House of Corrections) was run for decades by a superintendent who was independent of the Sheriff, the County transferred control over the CCF-S to the Sheriff in 2009 as a result of security concerns at the facility.  However, the new management proved less than satisfactory to some important stakeholders.

Conflict over Clarke’s administration of the CCF-S seems connected to a wider ideological conflict between Clarke and other County leaders over the incarceration of relatively low-risk criminal offenders, with Clarke taking a very critical position regarding various criminal-justice initiatives that might be grouped under the heading “evidence-based decision making.”  (Background on the conflict is here; my critique of some of Clarke’s views is here.)  Clarke has been unsupportive of treatment programs and alternatives to incarceration, and his administration of the CCF-S has apparently reflected this perspective.  Finally, through its 2013 budget, the County Board decided to transfer control of the CCF-S back to a superintendent.  Clarke’s control over the downtown jail, which has been his all along, remains unaffected.

Clarke sued the County in order to block the transfer.   Continue reading “The Sheriff Must Run the Jail, But How Do You Know Whether a Facility Is a Jail?”

Justice Kennedy: Big Ideas, Little Packages

At the conclusion of a semester spent discussing a mountain of Supreme Court opinions in my Constitutional Law class, one of my students asked a few days ago which Justice I identify with most closely.  The question caught me off guard; I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about that before.  After a moment’s hesitation, and to my surprise, I found myself answering “Justice Kennedy.”

I’m no less exasperated by Kennedy’s Delphic pronouncements than the next guy, and I disagree strongly with many of his specific votes.  (For instance, his approval of life without parole for a first-time drug offender in Harmelin v. Michigan comes to mind.)

But here’s why I identify with Kennedy anyway: I think that he brings to the task of judging a particular moral vision that resonates a great deal with me.  To be sure, this moral vision often seems at war in Kennedy’s heart with the values of judicial modesty and restraint (competing values that also tend to resonate with me).  The tension contributes to the frustrating character of many of his opinions, in which high-minded rhetoric is combined with holdings that seem to get narrower and increasingly equivocal the more closely you examine them.

Consider, for instance, Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Graham v. Florida (the subject of an article on which I have been working for the past few months).   Continue reading “Justice Kennedy: Big Ideas, Little Packages”

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?”

Overcoming the Pathologies of Hypermasculinity in Prison

Sharon Dolovich is one of my favorite writers on prisons.  I’ve especially appreciated her work on the K6G unit of the L.A. County Jail.  This is a segregated unit reserved for gay men and transgender women.  Her latest article on K6G explores the relatively positive experience of inmates in the unit so as to illuminate the core pathologies of life elsewhere in the Jail, and by extension in most male penal institutions across the country.

As Dolovich sees things, hypermasculinity is the defining characteristic of life in the general inmate population.  Here’s how she describes life in the GP units:   Continue reading “Overcoming the Pathologies of Hypermasculinity in Prison”

Tale of Three States: Minnesota’s Surprisingly Large Supervised Population

As noted here a few weeks ago, my forthcoming article comparing imprisonment trends in Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in now available on-line.  Due to space constraints, I was unable to include in the article all of the interesting data I have collected on the three states.  I’ll present some of that additional material in an occasional series of posts here.

Today, let’s take a look at the supervised populations of the three states.  The supervised population is comprised of four subgroups: those in prisons, those in jails, those on probation, and those out on post-imprisonment supervised release (a status that goes by different names in different jurisdictions, but which I will call parole).  As is well known, Minnesota has a remarkably low imprisonment rate (at least by U.S. standards), although all three states have experienced an  imprisonment boom since the 1970s.  Here are the imprisonment numbers, reflecting the number of prisoners per 100,000 state residents:  

imprisonment numbers

As the graph indicates, Minnesota has maintained a consistently lower imprisonment rate than the other two states since the mid-1960s.  Indeed, the Minnesota advantage has tended to widen over time.  By contrast, Indiana has generally had the highest imprisonment rate, although Wisconsin has been close at times, and even took the lead for a few years.

The story is quite different, however, if you consider the supervision numbers more broadly.   Continue reading “Tale of Three States: Minnesota’s Surprisingly Large Supervised Population”

Gay Rights and Sentencing: What Does Romer v. Evans Have to Do With Life Without Parole?

My Constitutional Law class this semester has been focusing on Hollingsworth v. Perry, the California same-sex marriage case.  We’ve been following the case through the Supreme Court litigation process, and I’ve also assigned some of the key precedent, including Romer v. Evans, the 1996 decision in which the Supreme Court overturned a Colorado law prohibiting local governments from treating sexual orientation as a protected status.

At the same time, I’ve been hard at work on an article about the Court’s recent decisions limiting the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, Graham v. Florida (2010) and Miller v. Alabama (2012).  In doing so, I’ve been struck by the similarities between the Court’s opinions in Romer and Graham, both of which were authored by Justice Kennedy.  And, although it is certainly not obvious or conventional to do so, I am starting to see Romer as a case that is about punishment.

In order to appreciate the connections between Romer and Graham, it is important to realize that Romer was decided before Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which recognized for the first time a constitutional right for same-sex partners to engage in what the Court described as “certain intimate sexual conduct.”   Continue reading “Gay Rights and Sentencing: What Does Romer v. Evans Have to Do With Life Without Parole?”