Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Incarceration and Equality

Oisín Gilmore: Last month the Oscars got some press attention for the unusually politicized nature of many of the acceptance speeches. While Patricia Arquette’s call for gender wage equality got perhaps the most attention, here I want to look at some recent research relating to an issue raised when the award for best song was given to the movie Selma.

In his acceptance speech, the musician Common observed: “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

While some have raised issue with this comparison because of both the qualitative difference between slavery and imprisonment [1] and because this statistic is largely a product of the increase in the size of the black population in America, the facts surrounding black incarceration are shocking.

Firstly, Common was correct, there are more than twice as many black men under correctional control in the US today as were enslaved in 1850 (1.68 million vs. 807,076). Roughly one in three black men have been convicted for a felony and roughly one in eleven black people (of any gender) is currently under correctional control.

This level of incarceration is relatively new phenomenon with prison populations exploding between 1975 and 2000, as can be seen in graph below. This development is of such significance that some have argued that mass incarceration of black men constitutes a New Jim Crow, although some black scholars have criticized this analogy.

While these figures are interesting in and of themselves, their implications for issues of economic equality have been generally under appreciated. But a recent study by Derek Neal and Armin Rick, “The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress after Smith and Welch” (2014), for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) sheds some light on this issue.

Their study joins a long line of research on the topic of economic racial equality in the US. A famous early contribution to this was “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” (1944) by the Nobel Laureate Gunnar Myrdal, who pessimistically argued that the problem was “pathological”, with little progress insight. A few decades later James Smith and Finis Welch in their paper ”Black Economic Progress After Myrdal” (1989) were able to argue that the tide had been turned. They were able to document substantial black progress between 1940 and 1980. Neal and Armin’s recent contribution to this literature argues that regrettably “this progress did not continue” (p.50) and if anything has gone into reverse.

They find that the black-white ratio for potential median wages for men in 2010 are comparable with the figures for 1970. This is true across different levels of work experience and is true despite the interim improvement progress. The difference in 2010 is greater than in 1980 or 1990 (Tables 10-11), indicating a reversal of egalitarian progress. When the opportunities faced by incarcerated workers is accounted for, these results are even stronger; they find the black-white potential wage difference for workers with 6-15 years’ work experience has returned to the situation in the 1950s.

Neal and Armin argue that considerations of racial equality and labour market outcomes in the US need to account for the implications of the prison boom on black welfare. They attempt to break down the cause of prison boom into its component elements. They do this by looking at a sample of 7 states where they think the data is most reliable. Strikingly, they note that the prison boom occurred despite a decline in crime rates and arrest rates[2].

If the cause for the prison boom was neither an increase in crime nor arrests, then it must be a change in sentencing policy. They argue this is the case but interestingly they find that prisoners were not generally serving longer prison terms during the prison boom. And they do not find a bias against blacks in sentencing. Rather they find that higher rates of incarceration arose because the probability of being sentenced to prison once arrested increased dramatically. For example, once a person was arrested for possession of drugs, the probability of them being sentenced to 2-5 years increased by a factor of five between 1985 and 2000 (Table 8).

Looking at their sample of 7 states, Neal and Rick estimate that if the policies in existence in 1985 had remained the same, the prison population would have increased from about 104,500 in 1986 to 165,000 in 2006 rather than increasing to 325,500, which it did. In other words, 160,000 people would not have been incarcerated in these 7 states. (p.31)[2] If the parameters of this estimate hold across the US, roughly 1,105,950 of the 2,325,000 incarcerated in the US in 2006 would not have been in prison.[3]

These are significant numbers and they highlight the significance of incarceration for any consideration of welfare. The remarkable increase in incarceration in the US, and how little remark was made on it by progressive movements until recently, should highlight to us the importance of continued vigilance on the issue of prisoners rights and caution regarding the drive to tougher sentencing.

Of course, Irish incarceration rates are only a fraction of those in the United States and the problems on that front should not be overstated. But there remain many issues of concern in Ireland on this front. The Irish prison population increased by 400% between 1971 and 2011. There are persistent problems in overcrowding. There is an over-reliance on solitary confinement to secure prisoner safety. 

And, in some ways similar to the situation for black Americans, there are dangers of incarceration being a persistent aspect of a poverty trap for certain demographics in Ireland. This is a danger both for the travelling community and for seriously deprived communities, with prisoners in Ireland being 25 times more likely to come from and return to a seriously deprived area.

[1] Note that the term “under correctional control” includes not only those in prison, but also those under probation or on parole. 
[2] Unlike most crimes, drug arrest rates increased over this period. 

[3]  They perform a further estimation, which tries to account for possibility that a high incarceration rate reduces the arrest rate. The choose parameters to maximize this effect but nevertheless find that the prison population would still be 139, 000 fewer under 1985 policies.

[4] This is my estimate based on Table 6 of Neal and Rick (2014).


Patrick Kinsella said...

Very interesting and a useful warning. As Prof Bryan Stephenson (NYU & Equal Justice Initiative) keeps saying, 'the opposite of poverty is justice.'

A bit off-topic, but possibly explaining the significant drop in crime from the mid-90s: the banning of lead in petrol in the mid-70s. Details here:

James Wickham said...

Right. Up to the 1970s US incarceration rates had been constant for decades and were broadly comparable to Europe. In the next thirty years they QUADRUPLED. The change in sentencing policy is also linked to a different understanding of the role of prison. There is no longer any belief at all that prison can be about rehabilitation. Another driver for increased incarceration has been privatisation. The US has an enormous prison industry, and of course, once you outsource prisons then the firms have an interest in...MORE PRISONERS.
On all this see especially Bruce Western, Punishment and Inequalitly in America (NY: Russell Sage, 2007).

Frank Schnittger said...
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