Chart of the Day: Fewer People Are Being Sent to Prison. Way Fewer.


If banning leaded gasoline—and thus reducing childhood exposure to airborne lead—leads to less violent crime when all those children grow up, shouldn’t it also lead to a smaller prison population? Yes it should. But there are problems. First, prison sentences tend to be long, so even when the number of new offenders began to decline in the 90s, we were still adding to a prison population that included lots of offenders from the 80s who weren’t going to be released anytime soon. So the prison population continued to grow. Second, the great crime wave of the 70s and 80s spawned an enormous public policy reaction. Courts got tougher, sentences got longer, and things like three-strikes laws became commonplace. So even as violent crime rates declined, more suspects were caught and convicted, and a larger percentage of them were given long prison sentences.

But eventually incarceration rates were bound to catch up anyway. After all, there’s a limit to how many new cops you can put on the streets and how much tougher you can make sentencing policy. So have they? Unfortunately, total prison population tells us more about policies and crime rates in the past, when today’s prisoners were first incarcerated, than it does about today. So Keith Humphreys decided instead to take a look at new prison admissions. He was pleased with what he found:

I was startled and encouraged to see that under current policies, we are at a two decade-year low in the prison admission rate. To provide historical perspective, peg the change to Presidential terms: When President Obama was elected, the rate of prison admission was just 3% below its 2006 level, which was very probably the highest it has ever been in U.S. history. But by the end of Obama’s first term, it had dropped to a level not seen since President Clinton’s first year in office.

As dramatic as these changes are, the prison population would be declining even faster if we fully accepted the logical consequence of the lead-crime hypothesis: not just that violent crime rates have plummeted over the past two decades, but that they’re likely to stay low. The problem is that our sentencing and incarceration policies are a vestige of an era when violent crime was rampant and only a harsh and iron-fisted response seemed to have any chance of stopping it. But we no longer need those policies. We could return to a less severe approach without endangering public safety if only we had the will to do it. America’s young simply aren’t as violent as they used to be.

Not convinced yet? Here’s some further data from Rick Nevin:

From 2002 to 2012, the incarceration rate fell 51% for men ages 18-19, 30% for men ages 20-24, and 21% for men ages  25-29….The prison population has fallen at a slower rate because steep incarceration declines for young men have been offset by rising incarceration for older adults.  From 2007 to 2012, the incarceration rate increased by 21% for men ages 45-49 and surged 45% for men ages 50-64.

Incarceration rates are way down for men in their teens and 20s, who grew up in the relatively lead-free post-1990 environment. But for older men, who grew up before then, incarceration rates are actually up. Lead did its work on them long ago.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate