Saturday, August 2, 2014

Work and Jail

I have run in to some interesting recent readings on the nexus between work, or the lack thereof, jail and drugs.  In case you didn't know, the numbers are staggering.

The table below, from The Prison Boom and the Lack of Black Progress since Smith and Welch by Derek Neal and Armin Rick, gives the fraction of black male high school dropouts employed, and below that the fraction that are institutionalized -- mostly in jail.

So, bottom left, in the last census, 19.2% of 20-24 year olds were employed, and 26.4 (!) percent were in jail. Read up, and it was not always thus. Of the cohort born in the 1930s, at the same age, 68% were employed and 6.7% were in jail -- in a society and criminal justice system that was, whatever our current faults, much more overtly racist. The numbers for older men are just as shocking if you haven't see these before.
Source: Derek Neal and Armin Rick
And really, that's just the surface.  Neal and Rick's numbers don't count the numbers on parole or otherwise under the supervision of the criminal justice system. And their numbers miss one of the biggest effects: In America, once you have a criminal record -- often even just an arrest record -- getting a job becomes next to impossible. So the flow through the criminal justice system, as much as the numbers currently in jail, is an important measure of its effect.

Becky Petit's Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress calculates the cumulative risk of imprisonment, which gives a sense of how many people are in this quandary.
Source: Becky Petit
The less than high school black number rose from 14.7% in 1979 to an astounding 68% in the latest numbers. Nearly 70 percent of black high school dropouts will spend time in jail. And pretty much end their hopes for conventional employment as a result. (Things aren't great for white high school dropouts either, and 21% for black high school graduates is pretty shocking too.)

The main point of Petit's book, and echoed by Neal and Rick, is that institutionalized people don't show up in standard statistics. Employment to all population is, for minority men, even worse than the standard ratio of employment to non-institutionalized population. Which was already amazingly low.

What happened? That's the main point of Neal and Rick's paper. Crime got a lot better. Arrests are down. Neal and Rick's  main answer is that the criminal justice system got a lot harsher: arrests turned in to jail more often, and jail sentences got a lot longer.
A move toward more punitive treatment of arrested offenders drove prison growth in recent decades, and this trend is evident among arrested offenders in every major crime category. Changes in the severity of corrections policies have had a much larger impact on black communities than white communities because arrest rates have historically been much greater for blacks than whites.
But while this explains a larger number in jail, it doesn't square with Petit's finding of the much larger numbers that flow through jail. If the same number get arrested and spend more time in jail, then we would not see larger numbers with lifetime experience of jail.

The other suspect is the war on drugs. Neal and Rick do find that the rise in Federal incarceration is mostly about drugs:
Between 1989 and 2010, the stock of federal prisoners increased by more than 250 percent....The Federal prison population increased by about 150,000 persons over this period, [that's at any one time, so the total number of people flowing through the system is much larger] and increases for only three offense categories account for almost 90 percent of this growth...  drug offenses...81,000, weapons and immigration offenses...29,000 and 21,000 respectively...The stock of prisoners serving time for traditional violent and property crimes remained roughly constant..
 And overall, it is the one category where arrests rose:

Source: Neal and Rick 
So, perhaps the war on drugs disproportionately affects less-educated minorities, reconciling Petit with Neal and Rick.

What is life like for people in this situation? How do they even get by with so few working?  I've been reading the reviews, both positive and negative, of Alice Goffman's On the Run. (The book itself is still on the in pile alas.) But it seems like it gives us a useful sense of the broader impact of the war on drugs and the intense association with the criminal justice system.

Interesting observations fro the New York Times Review:
The war on drugs mangled, if not destroyed, any trust between residents of distressed urban communities and the authorities. 
Young men like Mike often avoid girlfriends for fear that the women, for their own reasons, might turn their paramours in
Yes, if the cops are looking for you, the first thing they'll do is ask a girlfriend, or if there was one, a wife, and the cops can be pretty persuasive. Then we wonder why marriage is rare and men are absent in their children's lives.

As you can see, I'm attracted to the view that a lot of this disaster is one more awful consequence of the pointless war on drugs.

The New York Times has come out in an excellent series of editorials for Marijuana legalization. The column on this prohibition's effects on minorities "The injustice of Marijuana Arrests"
America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.
Sometimes, unintended consequences reach farther than one would imagine.


Some of the comments speculated that the high school dropout rate decreased, so we're just seeing a smaller sample of really pathological people.  Here's Petit's graph of the dropout rate. It is smaller, but that doesn't strike me as enough to account for the rather dramatic changes in employment, incarceration, or flow through the criminal justice system.

Source: Becky Petit


  1. Figures involving high school dropouts are suspect, because the nature of that population has changed drastically over time. If most people graduate from high school, then those that don't become a distinctive, disfunctional population. My grandfather didn't finish high school--- but most Illinois farmers didn't in 1910. If my son doesn't finish, it will be because of some deep problem.
    So what would be more useful is the imprisonment and employment rates of all black men of a particular age.
    Also, the non-institutional employment rate is perhaps more useful. It's interesting to know what percentage of men not in jail are working, as an indicator of social breakdown that is separate from the incarceration rate.
    Federal imprisonment is small compared with state and local imprisonment, and is disproportionately drug crime because burglary, robbery, larceny, assault, rape, and murder are usually not crimes under federal statutes. So using federal crime stats to show the importance of the war on drugs is a little like saying that drug treatment programs are 100% caused by the war on drugs. Neal and Rick should know better. "Traditional violent and property crimes" aren't federal crimes, so naturally they don't account for the increase in federal convictions. Price fixing has contributed more to the increase in federal prison populations than rape has, I expect, because I doubt rape is ever a federal crime (or does it come in if the crime takes place in a post office?)

  2. I found a seemingly reliable source (it has links to sources and this jives with what I’ve heard before) that says about 25% of people incarcerated have been charged with drug offenses (18% of state prisoners, and half the 13% of prisoners who are in federal prison).

    A Slate article notes that from the1970’s to 2009, the prison population rose from 300,000 to 1.6 million, with 300,000 now being in prison for drug offenses. Thus, even if we released every drug dealer from prison, the prison population would still have quadrupled since 1970.

  3. Eric is right the numbers by education level are not very useful because the lower education groups are getting smaller.

  4. Caught between the minimum wage and the war on drugs, what is a person of low educational acquirement supposed to do? As the data cited show, in the past is was not thus.

    1. Or, caught between the minimum wage, the war on drugs, and the catastrophe of inner-city public schools that make education nearly impossible to acquire.

  5. I lament incarceration, but we whipped crime in the last 20 years in most major cities. Connection?
    And I am not sure "inner city schools" are bad. They are good in L.A. and NYC---as seen by Asian student success. I think recreational drugs should be legal.

    1. Try again. Crime rates have dropped throughout the western world, including many countries with no trend towards increasing incarceration rates.

  6. Why is it a Black problem? Shouldn't all poor people of all races be caught between a rock and a hard place? If people want to live a life of crime instead actually studying and working hard then how is that a problem of the government? You can argue that drugs ought to be legal but then the drug trade would no longer a be lucrative path for Black men.

  7. I agree on the fact that this "war on drugs" is a waste of money and time and should come to an end. Not only money being wasted on drugs enforcement can be put into something such as improving public educations, but also giving a chance to those whom committed the offence a chance to start over instead of rotting their life away behind bars.

  8. The war on drugs is not 40 years old; it is coming up on its 100th birthday. The Harrison Act was passed in 1914. Ironically, the jingoism of the day cited racial problems as one of the main reasons we needed this legislation. The NYT claimed in an article on February 11, 1914 that, “Most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of the ‘cocaine crazed Negro brain.’” The Chinese were accused of enslaving white women with opium. Later on, marijuana was demonized using the same sex-laced racial hysteria. How far the NYT has come!

    The Harrison Act was a tax law putatively designed to regulate commerce in narcotics. But there was a loophole in there that law enforcement officials exploited a few years after passage: a doctor could legally prescribe narcotics to a patient for "legitimate medical purposes". However, addiction was considered a vice, not a disease.

    In 1914 addiction was already a problem. Opiate use in America was already the highest in the world. So this didn't happen yesterday or even in 1970 when the Controlled Substances Act was passed (the same goes for the American propensity for fast food, as noted by Tocqueville). At the time, an addict went to the doctor, got a prescription for morphine, and filled it at the drug store. Although far from ideal, it did accomplish several things: (1) addicts were regularly seen by a doctor, (2) the drug was of known strength and purity, and (3) it was inexpensive.

    Once law enforcement defined the "legitimate medical purpose" language they started to arrest doctors who prescribed narcotics to addicts. Hundreds of doctors went to jail. In the medical journals of the day there were commentaries observing how the Harrison Act had unwound all of the three beneficial aspects of medically managed addiction, specifically that people were now driven to the seedier parts of town to buy narcotics of dubious strength and purity at vastly marked up prices. In addition, it was noted that many former female patients had fallen into prostitution.

    So if the jingoists' intentions were to protect women from sexual depravity and keep narcotics out of the hands of minority groups, MAJOR FAIL.

    I like the articles Walter Williams has written about black failure to progress in America. I wish those charts above went back to 1900 because according to Williams blacks did better economically and had more stable families under Jim Crow. He blames the welfare state for disintegration of the family (although families seem to be disintegrating everywhere I look) and cultivating a culture of dependency.

  9. "As you can see, I'm attracted to the view that a lot of this disaster is one more awful consequence of the pointless war on drugs."

    Slight (but vital) correction: The war on drugs, as evil as it isn't, isn't pointless: All of the negative consequences WERE the point.

    That is, from the cop on the beat to the judge to the prison guard to the construction worker who builds the prison, lots of people make a signficantly more money (and much better benefits) by being a part of the war on drugs than than would make witth a real job.

    In fact, when I survey most of the people I went to high school with, there is a very high correlation between those who have a spouse/wife/kids/security[pension] and those who have some kind of government-related job. Those with real jobs (and being forced from their modest income to pay the taxes for all of the overpaid government employees) are usually (even though they often got good grades in high school) still single and struggling to get by.

    And think of the whining you always hear from the residents of a town when it is suggested that the local prison be shut down. Too many people don't care about the unethical treatment of others by government, so long as they profit by it.

  10. Would you say the resources used for the war on drugs could be allocated more efficiently? Perhaps a different method to tackle on drugs? Yes, it created more jobs and revenue for the government, but I believe our government is allocating our country's resources inefficiently for a program that barely works.

  11. Man, those are some depressing numbers. The War on Drugs is absolutely a failure, as it's doing nothing but locking up poor people, mostly minorities, who never really had a chance to make something of their lives to begin with. We can't just keep putting everyone in jail these days. Thanks for sharing this.


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

Thanks to a few abusers I am now moderating comments. I welcome thoughtful disagreement. I will block comments with insulting or abusive language. I'm also blocking totally inane comments. Try to make some sense. I am much more likely to allow critical comments if you have the honesty and courage to use your real name.