Contrary to popular assumption, the remarkably high and increasing rates of incarceration in the U.S. since the 1980s have not been driven by increases in the rate of violent crime. Rather, the burgeoning prison population is the result of changes in penal policies and practices and of the soaring number of drug offenders given prison sentences.
Despite the prominent role violent crime has played in the concerns of politicians,30 the media,31 and the public,32 the trends in offense rates for murder, robbery, burglary, and forcible rape were relatively flat or declining between 1980 and 1996 -- even before the past couple of years in which declining crime rates have been widely noted.33 The only violent crime that showed clear growth was aggravated assault, which may partly reflect increased official recording of domestic assaults and the increased tendency of police to record simple assaults as aggravated.34 Overall, "crime rates for most crimes peaked around 1980, fell through the mid-80s, rose for a while for reasons largely associated with the crack cocaine epidemic, and have since fallen sharply."35 The violent crime rate in 1997 was almost twenty percent lower than in 1991; the property crime rate was 16.1 percent lower. Total crime rates were at least twenty-five percent lower in 1996 than in the late 1980s or early 1990s.36 Arrests for all the major violent crimes, except aggravated assault, actually declined between 1990 and 1996.37 Indeed, regardless of the law enforcement and criminal justice strategies, crime dropped in all the major cities except Washington D.C., with total crime rates at least twenty-five percent lower in 1996 than in the late 1980s or early 1990s.38
According to two of the country's leading experts on criminal justice statistics, the growth in state incarceration for non-drug offenses between 1980 and 1996 is attributable entirely to public policy changes that increased the imposition of prison sentences and their length, and not to increased offending.39 That is, the growthof the prison population, excluding drug offenders, has been driven by criminal justice policies that have: 1) increased the likelihood that conviction for a crime will result in incarceration, including through mandatory minimum sentencing and "three strikes" laws; 2) increased the length of time served, by increasing the length of sentences, and reducing or eliminating the availability of early release and parole; and 3) increased the rate at which parolees are returned to prison.
Although these policies have been championed as protecting the public from serious and violent offenders, they have actually yielded high rates of confinement of nonviolent offenders.40 For the period 1980 to 1992, eighty-four percent of the increase in state prison admissions was due to the admission of nonviolent offenders, including drug offenders.41 Between 1990 and 1996, more than twice as many people were sent to state prison for nonviolent offenses (1,530,300) as for violent ones (654,800).42
In 1980, 48 percent of new admissions to prison were convicted of crimes of violence, 41 percent were convicted of property crimes, and 7 percent were convicted of drug crimes.43 By 1996 the proportion of drug offenders among new court commitments had soared to 31.7 percent, while the proportion of violent offenders had dropped to 26.8 percent and property offenders to 32.3 percent.44 These proportions have remained essentially unchanged since then. Nationwide, nonviolent offenders account for 72 percent of all prison admissions. With the exception of Oregon, in every state reporting to the NCRP, nonviolent offenders accounted for between 58 and 84 percent of all new admissions to state prison (Table 7).30 Efforts to understand the causes of increasingly punitive penal policies in the U.S. have identified as key factors the changing role that crime and punishment have played in U.S. politics. See, e.g., Michael Tonry, "Why are U.S. Incarceration Rates so High," Overcrowded Times, June 1999; Theodore Caplow and Jonathan Simon, "Understanding Prison Policy and Population Trends," in Michael Tonry and Joan Petersilia, eds., Prisons, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). 31 Crime is regularly the most frequently covered story in network news regardless of crime rates. In 1997, for example, murder coverage rose from previous years despite declining homicide rates. See, "Crime Regains Top Spot in Television News Coverage in 1997," Overcrowded Times, April 1998, reprinted from Media Monitor, January/February 1998, a publication of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Washington, D.C. 32 See BJS, 1998 Sourcebook, Tables 2.33-2.43, for a useful compendium of statistics about public attitudes towards crime and personal safety. 33 The standard sources for measuring national crime rates are the Federal Bureau of Investigations' annual publication of Uniform Crime Reports: Crime in the United States, based on arrest data compiled by the FBI through its Uniform Crime Reporting Program; and the annual National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The U.S. Department of Justice also publishes periodic reports on crime, e.g. Callie Marie Rennison,"Criminal Victimization in 1998," Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, (July 1999). 34 See Alfred Blumstein and Allen J. Beck, "Population Growth in U.S. Prisons, 1980-1996," in Tonry and Petersilia, Prisons, p. 30. 35 Tonry, "Why are U.S. Incarceration Rates So High?" See also, Tonry, "Crime and Punishment in America, 1971-1196," Overcrowded Times, April 1998. 36 For example, between 1991 and 1997, the murder rate fell by 30.6 percent, rape by 15.1 percent, robbery by 31.8 percent, aggravated assault by 11.8 percent, etc. Leena Kurki, "US Crime Rates Keep Falling," Overcrowded Times, February 1999. 37 Paula M. Ditton and Doris James Wilson, "Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons," Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice (January 1999), p. 5. 38 Kurki, "Crimes Rates Keep Falling." 39 Blumstein and Beck, "Population Growth." Blumstein and Beck focused on the six crimes that account for most of state prison populations: murder, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, drugs, and sexual assaults. Drawing on data collected by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, and from other national data sets, Blumstein and Beck analyzed growth in incarceration by crime type and by race and gender and then partitioned the growth of state incarceration rates by stages of thecriminal justice process (commission of crime, arrest, conviction, commitment, and time served in prison). 40 See Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate (New York: The New Press, 1999). 41 Marc Mauer, Americans Behind Bars: The International Use of Incarceration, 1992-1993, (Washington D.C.: The Sentencing Project, 1994) p. 10. 42 Numbers calculated from Bureau of Justice Statistics, "Correctional Populations in the United States, 1996," U.S. Department of Justice, April 1999, Table 1.22. 43 Mauer, Americans Behind Bars, p.10 44 BJS, "Correctional Populations, 1996," Table 1.23.