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offenses—sexual assault,6 aggravated assault, and drug crimes—were well over 200 percent; however, those changes were less dramatic because the rates for these offenses started from such low levels. Between 1980 and 2010, prison commitments for drug offenses rose 350 percent (from 2 to 9 per 100 arrests); commitments for sexual assault rose 275 percent (from 8 to 30 per 100 arrests); and commitments for aggravated assault rose 250 percent (from 4 to 14 per 100 arrests). State prison commitment rates for burglary and robbery also increased, but these increases were below 100 percent. These figures indicate that an increased probability that arrest would lead to prison commitment contributed greatly to the rise in incarceration rates between 1980 and 2010.

6 Estimates for rape and other sexual assaults were combined because of difficulties in dis

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Time Served The final component of assessing the contribution of changes in criminal justice policy to the rise in incarceration rates is the duration of incarceration for those given prison sentences. Time served must be estimated because it is not completely observed: the duration of incarceration is not known for those who have not been released. One could calculate time served from a cohort of releases, but this method would overrepresent those serving short sentences and underrepresent those serving long sentences. At the limit, those serving life without parole will never be released, and time served will be known only at their death. Calculating time served from release cohorts will thus underestimate the average. Blumstein and Beck (1999; Beck and Blumstein, 2012) base estimates of time served on the ratio of the stock population—the number of people in prison on the day of the annual population count—to new court commitments in that year.

If commitment rates were reasonably constant over time, that estimate of time served would be reasonably accurate. But admission rates, of course, have not been stationary and were increasing, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, which introduces error in the time-served estimates. To reduce that error, the admission process is smoothed by being approximated in each year as the 3-year average of the number of new court commitments in that year and the 2 adjoining years.7 Given that sentence lengths for serious crimes have increased greatly since 1980, the full impact of lengthy sentences on the level of incarceration has yet to be felt. The contribution of long sentences to rising incarceration rates can be fully observed only over a very long period. Without a sufficient observation period for lengthy sentences, average sentence lengths will also be underestimated. Very long sentences have increased in number since the proliferation of enhancements for those convicted of second and third felonies, the institution of truth-in-sentencing requirements, and other shifts in sentencing policy discussed in greater detail in Chapter 3. BJS’s analysis of recent trends in the state prison population reveals the growing population serving life and other long sentences. As of the end of 2000, BJS estimated that about 54,000 state prison inmates were serving life sentences, with a median age of under 30. Using a different methodology, a 2013 7 Estimates for 1980 and 2010 are omitted because one of their adjoining years is not available for the three-point smoothing. This estimation model (the ratio of stock population to new court commitments) is based on all new court commitments, including those parole violators arriving with a new sentence, but not counting technical parole violators. This approach contrasts with other measures based on using the number of exits in each year rather than new court commitments. (See Patterson and Preston, 2008.) Counting exit flow would count parolees only on the most recent increment of their total time served and would not take account of the earlier time served, prior to readmission on a parole violation. Thus, it would underestimate the total time served on the original sentence.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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survey report by the Sentencing Project estimates that more than 150,000 people were serving life sentences in state prison in 2012 (Nellis, 2013).8 Because of nonstationarity in admission rates and the growing prevalence of very long sentences, the estimates of time served presented below should be viewed as a lower bound on the increase in time served. The downward bias is likely to be largest for violent crimes, for which the growth in very long sentences has been greatest.

The most dramatic change in average time served was for murder, which climbed from 5.0 years in 1981 to 16.9 years in 2000, an increase of 238 percent. The second largest growth was in time served for sexual assault, which increased 94 percent, from 3.4 years in 1981 to 6.6 years in 2009; the rate of increase for this crime type was the largest observed during the 2000-2010 decade, adding about 2.5 months each year. The slowest rate of increase in time served was for drug offenses, increasing from 1.6 years in 1981 to 1.9 years in 2000 and then remaining nearly steady through 2009. The stability of time served by those committing drug offenses contrasts with the significant growth in rates of arrest and commitment for drug offenses discussed earlier. Time served may have changed little because short prison sentences were imposed on those committing drug offenses who may previously have served probation or time in jail. Trends in time served for the other three crime types—aggravated assault, burglary, and robbery—showed somewhat similar growth patterns.





Averaging 4.0, 2.8, and 2.0 years, respectively, over the entire 1980-2010 period, all had some growth from 1980 to 2000 (83, 41, and 79 percent, respectively), and all remained nearly stable after 2000 (see Figure 2-10).

The decomposition of the growth in incarceration rates is summarized in Table 2-1. From 1980 to 2010, the state imprisonment rate for six main crime types grew by 222 percent. Setting aside drug-related incarceration, for which offending rates are difficult to define and measure, changes in crime trends or in police effectiveness as measured by arrests per crime contributed virtually nothing to the increase in incarceration rates over the 30-year period. Rather, the growth can be attributed about equally to the two policy factors of prison commitments per arrest and increases in time served. These results are based on consideration of changes in all six crime types. Because the response to drug-related crimes is so distinctive and significant, Beck and Blumstein (2012) examined the other five crime 8 This number should be viewed as an approximation. The estimate was obtained by surveying state and federal prison authorities. It is unclear whether the count of prisoners serving life sentences includes those in custody or under jurisdiction. Custody and jurisdiction definitions typically yield slightly different counts of prison populations. In 2012, the same survey estimated that another 5,420 people were serving life sentences in federal prisons.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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negligible growth (0.65 percent) in the overall incarceration rate in state prisons, and whatever growth occurred is attributable almost entirely to increases in imprisonments per arrest.

Trends in the Federal System Growth in the incarceration rate has been larger and more sustained in the federal system than in the states. Between 1980 and 2000, the federal prison population increased by nearly 500 percent, from 24,363 to 145,416, surpassing the growth in state prison systems. By 2000, the federal system was the third largest prison system in the nation, behind those of Texas and California. Moreover, while the rapid growth of the states’ prison populations tapered off after 2000, the federal system continued to see a steady increase, becoming the largest system by midyear 2002. By 2010, the federal system, with a population of 209,771 inmates, had grown to be larger than the next largest system, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, by more than 36,000 inmates (Guerino et al., 2011). The federal system thus accounts for roughly 10 percent of the total prison population, but its share has been growing during the prison boom.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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Nearly all incarceration in federal prisons is due to federal convictions for robbery; fraud; and drug, weapon, and immigration offenses.9 During 1980-2000, as with the states, the most dramatic change was in drugrelated offending, for which the incarceration rate increased more than 10-fold, from 3 per 100,000 in 1980 to 35 in 2000. The other two crime types that saw comparably large growth are weapon and immigration offenses, which also increased more than 1,000 percent; that growth is less apparent because incarceration rates for these offenses started at such low levels in 1980. The incarceration rate for fraud grew considerably (about 227 percent) over this period, but still much less than the rates for the other three crime types. The incarceration rate for robbery rose steadily from 2.9 per 100,000 adults and then peaked at 4.6 per 100,000 in 2000.

Since 2000, the patterns of growth in incarceration rates have changed.10 With an already high rate of incarceration for drug offenses (35 per 100,000 adults), the increase for these offenses was more modest, up 16 percent (to 41 per 100,000 adults). At the same time, the dominant source of growth was weapon offenses, up 135 percent (from 5.2 to 12.2 per 100,000 adults) and immigration offenses, up 40 percent (from 6.5 to

9.1 per 100,000 adults). Fraud showed little change (up 5.5 percent), while robbery declined (from 4.6 to 3.2 per 100,000).

RACIAL DISPARITY IN IMPRISONMENT

The discussion thus far has examined the growth in incarceration rates, linking it to trends in crime, arrests, prison admissions, and time served.

The data point clearly to the increased rate of prison admission (particularly marked for drug crimes) and the increase in time served (especially for violent offenses) as sources of increased incarceration rates.

A parallel set of questions about the relative contributions of crime and the criminal justice system has been raised in the analysis of racial disparities in incarceration. As noted earlier, the rise in incarceration rates has had a disproportionately large effect on African Americans and Latinos. Having higher rates of poverty and urbanization and a younger age distribution, minority populations—at least for some categories of offenses—also show higher rates of offending and victimization. As incarceration rates were increasing, how much of the evolving racial and ethnic disparity in those 9 Note that BJS’s federal justice statistics program includes all sentenced federal prisoners, regardless of sentence length; moreover, all counts are based on fiscal years, ending September 30 of each reference year.

10 The Urban Institute recently completed a report examining growth in incarceration rates

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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rates can be explained by racial and ethnic differences in offending? This question, of course, is not just of descriptive interest; it is central to understanding the social significance of the emergence of high incarceration rates.

The sources of racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration are discussed

in Chapter 3.

Trends in black and white imprisonment are shown in Figure 2-11.11 BJS compiled state and federal prison admission rates for blacks and whites separately in a historical series extending from 1926 to 1986 (Langan, 1991b). The data are available annually from 1926 to 1946 and then intermittently for the post-World War II period until 1986. They show an 11 Trends in imprisonment for Hispanics are discussed in a later section of this chapter. Note

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increase in African American imprisonment from 1926 to 1940, while imprisonment rates were declining for whites. Prison admission rates climbed steeply in the mid-1970s but much more in absolute terms for African Americans than for whites.

The disparity in incarceration can be measured in both absolute and relative terms. The absolute disparity is measured by the difference between black and white incarceration rates, while the relative disparity is measured by the black-white ratio in incarceration rates. Table 2-2 shows the trend in absolute and relative disparity for imprisonment and admission rates for selected years from 1970 to 2010. Through the 1970s and 1980s, racial disparities increased in both absolute and relative terms. The increase in absolute disparities is especially striking, growing more than 3-fold from 1970 to 1986 for prison admission rates and more than doubling from 1980 to 1990 for imprisonment rates. The large increase in absolute disparities reflects the extraordinarily high rates of incarceration among African Americans that emerged with the overall growth of the incarceration rate. From 1990 onward, the white incarceration rate increased more rapidly than the incarceration rate for blacks, and the relative disparity declined. Still, the absolute disparity increased significantly in the 1990s as black incarceration rates continued to grow, and serving time in state or federal prison became commonplace for young African American men in poor communities.

Because of the large disparity—which was already high in 1972—the steep increase in incarceration rates produced extremely high rates of incarceration for blacks but not whites. In 2010, the imprisonment rate for blacks was 4.6 times that for whites—the lowest disparity in imprisonment

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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