The Strangely Underreported Decline in the Incarceration Rate

I hereby submit my nomination for the most underreported public policy story of the past year: The continuing decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars or on probation/parole. Both the change itself and low level of attention it has garnered are worthy of reflection.

At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the incarceration rate in the United States had been rising every single year since the mid 1970s. The relentless growth in the proportion of Americans behind bars had persisted through good economic times and bad, Republican and Democratic Presidents, and countless changes in state and local politics around the country.

If a public policy trend with that much momentum had even slowed significantly, it would have been merited attention, but something far more remarkable occurred: The incarceration rate and the number of people under correctional supervision (i.e., including people on probation/parole) declined for three years in a row. At the end of 2011, the proportion of people under correctional supervision returned to a level not seen since the end of the Clinton Administration.

You’d think this would be big news, but it’s gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, if you google on news articles and op-eds about incarceration that have appeared during the Obama Administration, you will find precious few that mention or even seem aware of the change. John Tierney dropped some breadcrumbs in his recent NYT article, which I hope means he will delve into the decline in incarceration as his series of articles on criminal justice progresses. There’s a great deal a good journalist could illuminate for the public, for example which policies and politics are producing the change and how it plays out on the ground.

Why hasn’t the shrinkage of the correctional population received more attention already? Three forces are likely at play.

(1) Most of the state, local and federal officials who have helped reduce incarceration are scared to publicly take credit for it. In general, reducing incarceration is a good thing, but probability dictates that in particular cases it will be a horrible thing. At least a handful of the roughly 100,000 fewer people under correctional supervision in 2011 versus 2010 for example will do something extremely violent and high-profile, and no politician wants to risk being in a story headlined “Convict released by thug-loving governor murders nun”.

(2) Issue advocates, funnily enough, have an interest in downplaying news that the problem they address is lessening. When the Non-Profit Center to Combat X (where X is anything from hate crimes to spitting on the sidewalk) gives a quote to a reporter about their issue, they will virtually always say that things have never been worse/the problem is exploding/the window to act is closing rapidly etc. It’s not that advocates truly want their problem of interest to get worse, but that their fundraising and profile will suffer if the general public knows that the problem they address is declining in severity. Case in point: When the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact documented that President Obama has kept his promise to respond to drug addicted non-violent offenders with rehabilitation rather than incarceration, some libertarian drug policy activists went into a panic and publicly attacked Politifact for going off message rather than being happy that the President had made progress on an important issue about which they presumably care deeply.

(3) “If it bleeds it leads” remains a journalistic norm. Many reporters and editorial writers want to produce sensational, morally outraged stories about how some problem is getting worse all the time with no end in sight. Progress on a long-entrenched social problem bores them, maybe because they think (wrongly, in my opinion) that it bores their readers too.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.