Prison is the subject of many myths in the public policy world. For example, many people believe that the size of the prison population has continued to rise under President Obama, when in fact it has fallen. Other observers maintain that prison populations drop during economic downturns, when in fact the reverse has generally been true. An even more widely embraced myth is that states have been increasingly incarcerating non-violent offenders. But as this chart from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows, the proportion of the state prison population that is serving time for a non-violent crime has been declining since the early 1990s.
The BJS data reveal that most state prison inmates today are incarcerated for a violent offense. Importantly, the data reflect current controlling offense only, and thus understate the proportion of prisoners who engage in violence: Many inmates currently serving time for a non-violent offense have prior convictions for violent crimes.
These data have at least three important implications.
First, the noble ongoing efforts to reduce the size of the prison population should take substantial care to protect public safety as violent offenders are released. Mass dumping of violent offenders into communities with no monitoring and no services would be dangerous for them, for their families, and for their neighbors. Further, if it leads to released prisoners committing high-profile acts of violence, it could also choke off political support for reducing the level of incarceration.
Second, even assuming the best of all policy worlds in which reducing incarceration continues to be a priority, the U.S. is probably too violent of a society to ever shrink its prison population to a Western Europe level. The proportion of the U.S. population that is serving time for violent crimes is larger than the proportion of the Western European population that is serving time for all offenses combined.
Third, policy makers and the media should be more skeptical of the constantly recycled claim that prisons are full of non-violent drug offenders. That is not remotely true and never has been. The ideologues who push this claim are not influenced by data, but the rest of us should be.
[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]