“Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States”–Final Version

May 4th, 2014

The Valparaiso University Law Review has now posted the final version of my article “Mass Incarceration in Three Midwestern States: Origins and Trends.”  Here’s the abstract:

This Article considers how the mass incarceration story has played out over the past forty years in three medium-sized, Midwestern states, Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The three stories are similar in many respects, but notable differences are also apparent. For instance, Minnesota’s imprisonment rate is less than half that of the other two states, while Indiana imprisons more than twice as many drug offenders as either of its peers. The Article seeks to unpack these and other imprisonment trends and to relate them to crime and arrest data over time, focusing particularly on the relative importance of violent crime and drug enforcement as drivers of imprisonment growth.

This paper was part of an interesting symposium issue on mass incarceration and the drug war.

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Which States Have Reduced Their Prison Populations in the Past Decade?

May 2nd, 2014

By 2002, in the wake of a recession that caused major fiscal challenges in many states, there was an increasingly widespread recognition that the American imprisonment boom of the 1980s and 1990s was not economically sustainable.  Dozens of states adopted new sentencing and corrections policies that were intended to restrain further growth in imprisonment.  These reforms seem to have had some success, as imprisonment rates finally stabilized after so many years of explosive growth.  However, very little progress has been made toward bringing U.S. imprisonment rates back down to our historical norms.  The “if you build it, they will come” principle seems in evidence — after so much prison capacity was built in the boom years, we’ve found ways to keep using it even as crime rates have tumbled down.

A few states have had success, however, in downsizing their prison populations.  Here are the ten states whose prison populations dropped between December 2002 and December 2012:

New York             -19%
New Jersey           -17%
California             -16%
Connecticut          -15%
Michigan              -14%
Maryland              -9%
South Carolina     -5%
Wisconsin             -5%
Rhode Island        -2%
Hawaii                  -1%

Even the largest decreases on the list are rather small compared with the size of the pre-2002 increases.  Nonetheless, some might wonder whether reduced imprisonment has resulted in more crime.  With that concern in mind, I gathered data on violent crime in the five states that experienced double-digit drops in imprisonment.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Oh, Those Woeful Recidivism Numbers

April 29th, 2014

Every decade or so, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics releases a big national study of prisoner recidivism. The latest BJS research came out last week, and the numbers were no less depressing than they were in 2002. Here’s the report’s lead:

Overall, 67.8% of the 404,638 state prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested within 3 years of release, and 76.6% were arrested within 5 years of release.

Simply put, failure is the norm, not the exception, for individuals released from U.S. prisons.

High recidivism rates constitute the most difficult and important challenge for those of us who would like to see fewer long sentences and more generous opportunities for inmates to earn early release. If most prisoners are rearrested shortly after they get out, doesn’t that lead inexorably to the conclusion that we should err on the side of more, not less, time behind bars?

Certainly, the woeful recidivism numbers should take indiscriminate, mass releases off the table. On the other hand, I think it is possible to overstate the significance of national rearrest rates for sentencing and corrections policy. These numbers should be the start, not the end, of the conversation.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Violence in the Heartland, Part VI: Cities Within the City

April 16th, 2014

My most recent posts in this series have compared violent crime data from different cities.  However, focusing on a single crime-rate number from a city may mask wide neighborhood-to-neighborhood variations within the city.

Consider Milwaukee.  A helpful on-line data tool permits interesting comparisons among the city’s seven police districts.  The data reveal that rates of violent crime vary within the city by about as much as they do across cities.  Here, for instance, are the homicides per 100,000 district residents since 2010:

District 5, encompassing the north-central portion of the city, has easily had the highest homicide rate each year, while Districts 1 (downtown and northeast) and 6 (far south) have easily had the lowest.  (District boundaries are described in more detail here.)

Robbery rates reflect a similar pattern:  Read the rest of this entry »

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Violence in the Heartland, Part V: Wisconsin’s Cities

April 7th, 2014

Since 1985, Wisconsin’s seven largest cities have followed markedly different paths in their rates of reported violent crime.  Two, Waukesha and Appleton, have consistently had lower rates than the state as a whole, while two others, Milwaukee and Racine, have typically had rates that are two to three times higher than the state as a whole.  Kenosha and Racine have significantly reduced their rates of violence since the 1980s, while the other five cities have experienced sizable net increases.

Here are the overall trends, in the form of reported violent crimes per 100,000 city residents:

Cities year by year

In recent years, as you can see, Waukesha has easily had the lowest rates and Milwaukee the highest.  Earlier, Appleton used to compete with some success for lowest and Racine for highest.

Here are the net changes in the cities’ crime rates from 1985-1987 to 2010-2012:   Read the rest of this entry »

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Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward “Truth in Sentencing”

March 31st, 2014

Preoccupied by a couple of other projects, I’ve fallen behind in my blogging.  However, I’m pleased to report that one project is now complete and posted on SSRN (available here).  Coauthored with Darren Wheelock (Marquette Department of Social and Cultural Sciences) and entitled “Imprisonment Inertia and Public Attitudes Toward ‘Truth in Sentencing,’” the paper provides more in-depth analysis of the Wisconsin survey research I’ve discussed in a number of posts (e.g., here and here).  The abstract goes like this:

In the space of a few short years in the 1990s, forty-two states adopted truth in sentencing (“TIS”) laws, which eliminated or greatly curtailed opportunities for criminal defendants to obtain parole release from prison. In the following decade, the pendulum seemingly swung in the opposite direction, with thirty-six states adopting new early release opportunities for prisoners. However, few of these initiatives had much impact, and prison populations continued to rise. The TIS ideal remained strong. In the hope of developing a better understanding of these trends and of the prospects for more robust early release reforms in the future, the authors conducted public opinion surveys of hundreds of Wisconsin voters in 2012 and 2013 and report the results here. Notable findings include the following: (1) public support for TIS is strong and stable; (2) support for TIS results less from fear of crime than from a dislike of the parole decisionmaking process (which helps to explain why support for TIS has remained strong even as crime rates have fallen sharply); (3) support for TIS is not absolute and inflexible, but is balanced against such competing objectives as cost-reduction and offender rehabilitation, (4) a majority of the public would favor release as early as the halfway point in a prison sentence if public safety would not be threatened, and (5) a majority would prefer to have release decisions made by a commission of experts instead of a judge.

The paper will be published in early 2015 in the BYU Law Review.

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Violence in the Heartland, Part IV: The Biggest Losers (and Gainers)

February 22nd, 2014

Among the eleven biggest Midwestern cities, Chicago has experienced the largest drop in homicide rates over the past quarter-century, while Cincinnati has experienced the largest increase.  The other nine cities are scattered between the biggest loser and the biggest gainer, reflecting a range of markedly different urban experiences with lethal violence since the mid-1980s.

This rather messy graph indicates the annual number of homicides (murder and other nonnegligent manslaughter) per 100,000 residents for each of the eleven Midwestern jurisdictions with a population of more than 250,000:

homicides by 11 cities

Other than Detroit’s position as the region’s perennial homicide champ, it is hard to discern any patterns in the mass of lines.

The following table provides a clearer picture of each city’s trajectory.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Violence in the Heartland, Part III: City Trends

January 26th, 2014

In earlier posts (here and here), I have explored state-level violence trends since 1960 in the seven midwestern states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  This post focuses on the data from the largest city of each of these states.  Since Chicago does not report its rape numbers in conformity with FBI standards, it is omitted from the analysis.

Here are the city trends since 1985 (reported violent crimes per 100,000 residents):

city data

What stands out most is the very wide, persistent gap between Detroit at the top of the chart and Des Moines at the bottom.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Violence in the Heartland, 1960-2012–Part Two: Crime Wave or Aggravated Assault Wave?

January 13th, 2014

In the first post in this series, I described overall violent crime trends in the seven Midwestern states since 1960. In all of the states except for Wisconsin, the basic story was identical: a dramatic spike in violent crime between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s was followed by a subsequent drop in violence that was nearly as sharp as the increases had been. Wisconsin had the spike, but not the sustained drop of the other states.

In this post, I disaggregate the four categories of crime that go into the overall violence number. Doing so changes the story a bit, as we can see that aggravated assault was by far the biggest driver of the violence spike, and since then has remained stubbornly high. From the standpoint of homicide and robbery, the contemporary Midwest looks only a little more dangerous than the Midwest of 1960; it is only when we add to the picture aggravated assault (and, to a lesser extent, rape) that the data look much worse. There are interesting and uncertain questions about the extent to which these a/a numbers reflect genuine changes in criminal behavior, as to opposed to changes in crime-reporting.

Before considering those questions, let’s look at the numbers.  First, consider the seven-state trends for homicide rate (that is, homicides per 100,000 residents):   Read the rest of this entry »

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“The Past Is a Foreign Country” — Or Is It?

December 15th, 2013

I’ve recently finished reading Dean Strang’s fascinating new book, “Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror.”  The book recounts the story of a once-famous (or infamous) criminal case that was tried in Milwaukee nearly a century ago.  The case arose from a short, armed skirmish between police and residents of Milwaukee’s largely Italian, working-class Bay View neighborhood in September 1917. In the wake of that violence, police indiscriminately arrested dozens of Italian immigrants, ultimately resulting in the trial of eleven suspected anarchists in November 1917 on charges of assault with intent to murder.

America’s recent entry into the First World War had already created a public atmosphere that was hardly favorable to immigrants and political dissidents, but a terrible local tragedy may have wiped out any remaining hope that the defendants would receive a fair trial.  Just days before the jury was selected, a bomb exploded in a Milwaukee police station, killing ten — America’s single greatest loss of officers in the line of duty before 9/11. Although the Bay View defendants were not formally charged with this crime — indeed, the case was never solved and no one was ever formally charged — the bombing was widely believed to be the work of the defendants’ supporters.

Little wonder that all of the defendants were convicted on a dubious conspiracy theory in a trial that reeked of pro-prosecution bias from start to finish.   Read the rest of this entry »

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