Imprisonment Trends in the Heartland

A draft of my new article, “Mass Incarceration in the Three Midwestern States: Origins and Trends,” is now available on SSRN.  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.

The article builds on my series of “Tale of Three States” blog posts from about a year ago.  It will appear in print later this year in a symposium issue of the Valparaiso Law Review.


New Report Offers More Complete Calculation of Costs of Imprisonment

How much does imprisonment cost a state’s taxpayers?  The question is conventionally answered simply by looking at the budget of the state’s department of corrections.  In some states, however, a substantial share of the imprisonment-related expenses are borne by other state agencies or otherwise do not appear in the corrections department’s budget.  In order to provide a more complete accounting of the costs of imprisonment, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice recently collected and analyzed data from forty states (including Wisconsin).  Their findings were published in the Federal Sentencing Reporter at 25 Fed. Sent. Rep. 68 (2012).

The Vera researchers identified eleven categories of costs that are not included in corrections budgets.  The most important of these, amounting to almost $2 billion in costs nationally in 2010, took the form of gaps in the funding of health benefits for retired corrections employees.  In some states, this and other off-the-budget costs added up to a large share of total prison costs.  For instance, in both Connecticut and Illinois, about one-third of the total prison cost was outside the corrections budget.  When hidden expenses are so high, the public may have a hard time evaluating the true cost-effectiveness of state sentencing and corrections policies.

Wisconsin’s hidden costs, at 8.5 percent of the total, were somewhat below the average among the forty states studied.   Continue reading “New Report Offers More Complete Calculation of Costs of Imprisonment”

California Answers Some of the Graham/Miller Questions, Sort Of

As I discussed in a recent post, the United States Supreme Court left many questions unanswered in its two recent decisions on life without parole for juveniles.  In the first case, Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court banned LWOP for juveniles convicted of nonhomicide offenses.  Then, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court banned mandatory LWOP even for juveniles convicted of homicide.  These were important Eighth Amendment decisions, but the lower courts have been left to implement them without much guidance.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court began to address some of the unanswered questions in People v. Caballero.  I think Caballero got things right, as far as it went, but the case left much open for future litigation.  Continue reading “California Answers Some of the Graham/Miller Questions, Sort Of”

Who Are the Juvenile Lifers? New Report Paints a (Mostly) Grim Picture

The Sentencing Project has a new report on prisoners sentenced to life without parole for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18.  Entitled “The Lives of Juvenile Lifers,” the report presents the results from a national survey of more than 1,500 JLWOP inmates.  The report is very timely in light of the Supreme Court’s two pending JLWOP cases — perhaps the new information will help to convince the justices that JLWOP does indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, even for homicide crimes.  In any event, here are some of the highlights.

Continue reading “Who Are the Juvenile Lifers? New Report Paints a (Mostly) Grim Picture”

New Report on Criminal-Justice Reforms in 2011: States Continue to Look for Ways to Cut Costs

In a new report entitled “The State of Sentencing 2011: Developments in Policy and Practice,” Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project summarizes the most recent set of criminal-justice reforms adopted across the United States.  Continuing a recurring theme in recent years, many of these reforms are intended to reduce incarceration numbers and corrections budgets.  Here are some highlights:

Continue reading “New Report on Criminal-Justice Reforms in 2011: States Continue to Look for Ways to Cut Costs”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 6: Happy Days

In the previous post in this series, I took the imprisonment data from Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin back to 1991.  I’ve been interested, though, in pinpointing when exactly the Minnesota-Wisconsin imprisonment disparity arose, which requires going back further — much further, to the 1950’s.  Here are the numbers:

WI Imprisonment Rate (per 1000,000) Percent Change MN Imprisonment Rate (per 1000,000) Percent Change IN Imprisonment Rate (per 1000,000) Percent Change
1950 58.7 n/a 63.0 n/a 120.4 n/a
1955 61.6 4.9% 61.6 -2.2% 103.1 -14.4%
1960 69.5 12.8% 60.3 -2.1% 116.4 12.9%
1965 68.3 -1.7% 49.1 -18.6% 91.1 -21.7%
1970 67.3 -1.5% 41.7 -15.1% 79.6 -12.6%
1975 65.0 -3.4% 42.0 0.7% 73.0 -8.3%
1980 85.0 30.8% 49.3 17.4% 114.0 56.2%
1985 113.6 33.6% 55.9 13.4% 182.3 60.0%
1990 152.6 34.3% 71.9 28.6% 229.7 26.0%
1995 218.6 43.3% 105.1 46.2% 277.7 20.9%
2000 386.9 77.0% 126.8 20.6% 331.0 19.2%
2005 392.9 1.6% 173.1 36.5% 399.5 (est) 20.7%
2010 387.2 -1.5% 177.8 2.7% 459.9 15.1%

The numbers tell a remarkable story.  Here are some of the parts of that story that stand out for me:

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 6: Happy Days”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 5: The Effect of Truth in Sentencing in Wisconsin

Previous posts in this series have examined the latest available incarceration data from Indiana, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  This post considers historical data.  I’m particularly interested in the impact of a major change in sentencing law that was adopted in Wisconsin in 1998.  Under the “truth in sentencing” law, parole was abolished for crimes committed on or after December 31, 1999.  What impact did this have on the size of the state’s prison population?  Two hypotheses occur to me.  First, if judges continued to impose the same nominal sentences that they had been imposing, one would expect the prison population to grow because offenders would be serving longer real sentences.  Alternatively, judges might have reduced their nominal sentences to account for the loss of parole release options, attempting thereby to achieve the same real sentences as before TIS; such discounting would presumably lead to stability in the imprisonment rate.

The data, set forth in the table below, seem to support the latter hypothesis, with the current rate of imprisonment almost exactly matching that of 2000, the first full year after TIS took effect.  Indeed, since 1999, the state’s imprisonment rate has been remarkably stable.  The single largest annual change since 1999 was a 5.8% drop in 2005.  This makes for quite a contrast with the volatile 1992-1999 time period, when annual increases averaged 12%.

The picture becomes even more interesting if we focus on Wisconsin’s imprisonment rate relative to that of peer states Indiana and Minnesota.

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 5: The Effect of Truth in Sentencing in Wisconsin”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 4: The Racial Threat Hypothesis

In the previous post in this series, I highlighted a wide gap in the incarceration rates of Indiana and Minnesota, with Wisconsin in the middle.  The ordering of the three states from highest incarceration rate to lowest corresponds with the ordering from highest rate of violent crime to lowest.  However, for reasons I explained in the previous post, I don’t think  we ought to end our analysis with the simple assertion that high crime drives high incarceration.  For one thing, there is Minnesota: with a crime rate only a little lower than Wisconsin’s, Minnesota has an incarceration rate that is much lower.  There must be other factors at play besides just the crime rate to account for Minnesota’s incarceration rate.  For another, to focus on the crime-incarceration connection begs the question of what drives the very different crime rates of the three states.

In this post, I’ll explore another possible way of accounting for differences in the three states’ incarceration rates, the racial threat hypothesis.  The basic idea is this: a larger racial minority population causes the majority to feel more threatened by the minority and consequently to prefer to stronger social control measures.

Here are the key numbers from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota:




Black Population (2010)




Blacks as Percentage of Total Population (2010)




Imprisonment Rate (2010, per 100,000)




As you can see, the incarceration-rate order tracks the order based on the size of the each state’s black population.

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 4: The Racial Threat Hypothesis”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 3: Harsh Hoosiers

In the first post in this series, I explored the large gap between the incarceration rates of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In the second, I discussed racial disparities in the incarcerated populations of the two states.  The disparities in both states are wide, although Wisconsin’s are somewhat larger.  In this entry, I add a third state, Indiana, to the statistical comparisons.  As another medium-sized midwestern state, one might expect that Indiana would have criminal-justice numbers that are similar to Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s.  Indiana’s numbers, however, point to a criminal-justice sustem that is much larger and harsher than those of its northern neighbors.

As detailed in the table that appears after the jump, Indiana’s imprisonment rate (about 460 per 100,000) easily outstrips Wisconsin’s (387) and dwarfs Minnesota’s (178).  Perhaps even more surprisingly, Indiana’s probation population also exceeds Minnesota’s.  My Minnesota-Wisconsin comparison suggested that Wisconsin imprisons many defendants who would get probation in Minnesota, leading to a much smaller probation population in the former than the latter.  But Indiana seems to incarcerate the same way that Wisconsin does, without any accompanying reduction in the probation numbers.

For that reason, Indiana’s total supervised population of 167,872 is the largest of the three states (although Minnesota, with the smallest overall population of three, still has a somewhat larger per capita supervised population, thanks to its enormous per capita probation number).

Indiana also leads the way in crime.

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 3: Harsh Hoosiers”

A Tale of Three States, Pt. 2: Racial Disparities

In the first post in this series, I highlighted a sizable gap between the incarceration rates of Minnesota and Wisconsin.  Although the two states have similar crime rates, Wisconsin has more than twice Minnesota’s incarceration rate (651 per 100,000 versus 310).

In this post, I cover racial disparity data in the two states.  As summarized in a helpful new article by Michael Rocque (“Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System and Perceptions of Legitimacy: A Theoretical Linkage,” 1 Race & Justice 292 (2011)), a substantial body of research documents wide racial disparities in the American criminal justice system.  Consistent with the national data, and despite longstanding reputations for progressive politics, both Minnesota and Wisconsin exhibit troublingly large disparities in white and black incarceration rates.

Continue reading “A Tale of Three States, Pt. 2: Racial Disparities”