Wonkbook: 11 facts about America’s prison population

August 13, 2013

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(Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters)
(Photo by Stephen Lam/Reuters)

Here's a bit of context for Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to encourage federal prosecutors to charge low-level drug offenders with less severe crimes (thanks to Dylan Matthews and Brad Plumer for doing a lot of the spade work here):

- The U.S. prison population is more than 2.4 million.

- That's more than quadrupled since 1980.

- That means more than one out of every 100 American adults is behind bars.

- About 14 percent of the prison population is in federal prison -- that's the group Holder is talking about.

- The single largest driver in the increase in the federal prison population since 1998 is longer sentences for drug offenders.

- The average inmate in minimum-security federal prison costs $21,000 each year. The average inmate in maximum-security federal prisons costs $33,000 each year.

- Federal prison costs are expected to rise to 30 percent of the Department of Justice's budget by 2020 .

-  Sens. Dick Durbin, Pat Leahy, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul have all endorsed legislation to give federal judges more flexibility when sentencing non-violent offenders. Holder backs the bill, too.

- The most serious charge against 51 percent of those inmates is a drug offense. Only four percent are in for robbery and only one percent are in for homicide.

- The most serious charge against 20 percent of state-prison inmates is a drug offense. That's much lower than the 51 percent in federal prisons, though it's still larger than any other single category of offense in state prisons.

- At least 17 states are currently experimenting with Holder-like reforms.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: U.S. murder rate, 1960-2011.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) taking a bite out of drug sentencing; 2) fiscal nightmare or political nightmare; 3) another Obamacare delay; 4) North Carolina's new voter laws; and 5) more leaks on the Fed succession.

1) Top story: Can Eric Holder take a bite out of heavy drug sentences?

Holder seeks to avert mandatory minimum sentences for some low-level drug offenders. "Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Monday that low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or large-scale drug organizations will no longer be charged with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences. The new Justice Department policy is part of a comprehensive prison reform package that Holder unveiled in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco. He also introduced a policy to reduce sentences for elderly, nonviolent inmates and find alternatives to prison for nonviolent criminals." Sari Horwitz in The Washington Post.

Read: Holder’s remarks at the American Bar Association as prepared for delivery. Talking Points Memo.

Two powerful signals of a major shift on crime. "Two decisions on Monday, one by a federal judge in New York and the other by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., were powerful signals that the pendulum has swung away from the tough-on-crime policies of a generation ago. Those policies have been denounced as discriminatory and responsible for explosive growth in the prison population...[T]he crack wave has long since passed and violent crime rates have plummeted to four-decade lows, in the process reducing crime as a salient political issue. Traditionally conservative states, driven by a need to save money on building and maintaining prisons, have taken the lead in scaling back policies of mass incarceration." Charlie Savage and Erica Goode in The New York Times.

@rortybomb: Holder moving against drug mandatory minimums and judge finds against stop-and-frisk. A good morning for a more sensible policing strategy.

Eric Holder is cutting federal drug sentences. That will make a small dent in the U.S. prison population. "Focusing on drug offenses is a smart way to go about reducing the federal incarceration rate. According to data in Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?, a new book by UC – Berkeley’s Steven Raphael and UCLA’s Michael Stoll, the most serious charge for 51 percent of federal inmates in 2010 was a drug offense. By comparison, homicide was the most serious charge for only 1 percent, and robbery was the most serious charge against 4 percent." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Longread: Interested in more reading material on crime? You'll definitely want to check out The Economist's July feature.

The war on drugs is breaking the Justice Department’s budget. "[H]ere’s another way to think about today’s move: The rapid growth in federal prisons was putting a serious strain on the Justice Department’s budget. The number of federal inmates has quadrupled since 1980 and now surpasses 218,000. Housing all those prisoners isn’t cheap: The average minimum-security inmate now costs $21,000 a year, while the average high-security inmate costs $33,000 a year. Add it all up, and the Obama administration had to request $6.9 billion for the Bureau of Prisons in fiscal 2013." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Sentencing move shows new willingness to engage on race. "Holder’s actions come in conjunction with President Obama's recent impromptu discussion on the Trayvon Martin verdict and a scheduled appearance by the president at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington later this month. Civil rights leaders and minority lawmakers applauded Holder’s latest move, in which Justice won’t pursue mandatory minimum sentences on many non-violent drug crimes. They called it part of an encouraging push by the Obama administration to address issues of racial inequality." Justin Sink and Mike Lillis in The Hill.

@TheStalwart: Lack of cynicism among drug war and sentencing reformers to Holder's statement today may the biggest surprise.

KLEIMAN: Holder has done the right thing. "Holder had already partially reversed that position, calling for an “individualized assessment” of each case; today’s announcement creates a presumption against charging the specific acts that lead to mandatory minimum sentences unless there’s a reason to do so. It’s hard to tell from the bare-bones official statement just how much of a difference today’s announcement will make. It doesn’t go as far as I might have gone, by requiring that a prosecutor who wants to ask for more than five years in a case not involving violence specifically justify that decision and have it approved in Washington." Mark Kleiman in the "Reality-Based Community" blog.

MARSHALL: Humility and history. "It all kind of hit me a few years ago when I realized that murder rates had fallen so low that you’re standard police procedural like Law and Order just wasn’t realistic any more. There just weren’t enough murders to go around. If you’re interested in US politics, I think there are few datasets that have more defined our politics over the last quarter century. The only other that really compares is the stagnating or declining incomes of the lower 3/4 on the income scale. But I think this may be even more important. You can pretty much chart the rightward turn in American politics against that first slope and plateau and the increasing openness to reformism of various sorts on the downward slope." Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo.

Music recommendations interlude: REM, "So. Central Rain."

Top opinion

KLEIN: Politics isn’t a zero-sum fight between corporations and the poor. "The conventional wisdom on Washington is that corporations win every fight and everyone else — particularly the poor — get shafted...But like much conventional wisdom, it’s wrong, or at least incomplete...[T]he record in recent years: Much more social spending on the poor, somewhat higher taxes on the rich, and plenty of accommodation with corporate interests — though nothing near complete submission." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

FLAVELLE: Going broke from college? Blame the states. "So what was behind the skyrocketing tuition? Mostly falling state support. While the recession put extra pressure on state budgets, the share of spending that goes to higher education has been slipping for 15 years. In 1998, 13.1 percent of state general-fund spending went to higher education. By 2012, that was down to 10 percent. That translates into a significant drop in funding per student. In 2001, state governments appropriated $8,427 for each full-time student or equivalent. By 2012, that had fallen to $5,906, a reduction of almost a third. (Both figures are in 2012 dollars.) To make up the difference, colleges and universities have leaned harder on students. The share of revenue that comes from tuition rose from 29 percent in 2000 to 47 percent last year at public institutions." Christopher Flavelle in Bloomberg.

PONNURU: Republicans, don't shut down the government. "Newt Gingrich is telling Republicans not to fear a government shutdown because the last one went so well for them. This is pure revisionist history, and they would be fools to believe him. Gingrich is trying to buck up the Republicans who favor this tactic, while reinterpreting an important episode in his career that has usually been taken to be a big mistake. He says the shutdown advanced Republican aims, making it possible to restrain spending and balance the budget." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

THOMA: Smart policies to restore the middle class. "The usual solution to this problem is a vague call for better education for those who end up at the bottom of the wage distribution, and that is certainly part of the answer...We should also do much better at job training and retraining, and at providing social services for displaced workers. Campaign finance reform that gives workers more power in the political process along with strengthened unions to restore the balance of power between workers and firms wouldn’t hurt either." Mark Thoma in The Fiscal Times.

KIMBALL: The Ben Franklin strategy to a U.S. renaissance. "The reason China’s economic rise matters for US grand strategy is that China has a much larger population than the United States...An excellent answer is to do everything possible to foster long-run growth of per capita GDP in the US. At a minimum, this includes radical reform of our system of K-12 education, removing the barriers state governments put in the way of people getting jobs, and dramatically stepped-up support for scientific research...The key to maintaining America’s preeminence in the world is to return to Ben Franklin’s visionary grand strategy of making many more of the world’s people into Americans." Miles Kimball in Quartz.

NOCERA: Don't kill Fannie Mae. "Let’s just call this what it is: capitulation. Every since the financial crisis, Republicans have insisted that Fannie and Freddie — private companies that also have a government role, and that guarantee and securitize mortgages — were the root problem. According to their theory, the two companies drove the country off the subprime cliff, primarily because of their federal mandate to help make it possible for low-income borrowers to own homes. The truth is pretty much the opposite." Joe Nocera in The New York Times.

GRAMM AND SOLON: Blame Clinton and the affordable-housing lobby for the financial crisis. "Whatever went on inside the various agencies, financial regulators—whose job it was to enforce safety and soundness regulations—in the end deferred to government affordable-housing goals. Conflicted laws created conflicted regulations and conflicted regulators. Safety and soundness considerations required that regulators step on the brake. Affordable-housing goals required them to step on the gas. Government policy tried to make private wealth serve both government and private purposes." Phil Gram and Mike Solon in The Wall Street Journal.

Something truly special interlude: Let me reintroduce you to what poetry really sounds like in modern America.

2) We've traded a fiscal nightmare for a political one

Should Wall Street worry about the next fiscal fight? "[T]his time — wait for it — could be different. Really, seriously different...Here is just a sampling of why Wall Street may be wrong: The House GOP is hopelessly fractured on spending strategy. Senate Republicans who might otherwise broker a deal face primary challenges that make compromise potentially deadly. Other Senate Republicans are jockeying for 2016. And congressional Democrats have no appetite for any bargain — grand or otherwise — that cuts entitlement spending." Ben White and MJ Lee in Politico.

U.S. budget deficit keeps shrinking. "The budget deficit for the 10 months reached $607.42 billion, 38% narrower than a year earlier...For the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the Congressional Budget Office estimates a deficit of $642 billion, compared with $1.087 trillion a year earlier and the smallest gap since 2008's $458.55 billion shortfall." Jeffrey Sparshott in The Wall Street Journal.

Pragmatic Republicans in Congress are pushing back against the Tea Party. "Midway between the 2012 and 2014 election campaigns, moderate Republican conservatives are beginning to foment a revolt of their own — a backlash to anti-spending tea party shrillness as budget cuts begin to significantly shrink defense and domestic programs. Tea party forces may have dominated the House GOP's approach to the budget so far, but pragmatists in the party have served notice they won't stand idly by for indiscriminate spending cuts to politically popular community development grants, education programs and even Amtrak." The Associated Press.

Obama will exempt military personnel if sequester continues. "President Obama plans to exempt military personnel from sequestration next year if Congress does not act to cancel the automatic spending cuts, according to the White House budget office. Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell announced the commander-in-chief’s intentions in a letter on Friday to the Senate president — Vice President Biden — and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)...Burwell noted in her letter that the exemption would place additional strain on other Pentagon accounts, including those that affect civilian defense employees. The sequester will require $52 billion in Defense Department cuts for fiscal 2014 if the austerity plan continues...The Pentagon has signaled it will consider reductions in force next year if Congress does not cancel the sequester." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Not in Soviet Russia interlude: Athlete lifts weights to accordion music. Sochi is coming.

3) Cost limits in Obamacare are quietly postponed

Another big chunk of Obamacare gets delayed. "The limit on out-of-pocket costs, including deductibles and co-payments, was not supposed to exceed $6,350 for an individual and $12,700 for a family. But under a little-noticed ruling, federal officials have granted a one-year grace period to some insurers, allowing them to set higher limits, or no limit at all on some costs, in 2014. The grace period has been outlined on the Labor Department’s Web site since February, but was obscured in a maze of legal and bureaucratic language that went largely unnoticed. When asked in recent days about the language — which appeared as an answer to one of 137 “frequently asked questions about Affordable Care Act implementation” — department officials confirmed the policy." Robert Pear in The New York Times.

New argument against Obamacare: data security. "Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday that the Obama administration should delay its signature healthcare law because of concerns about data security. McConnell cited a recent report that said the Health and Human Services Department has missed deadlines for testing the security of a newly created data hub. The health law's insurance exchanges should not open until the data hub's security is more certain, McConnell said." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Onion interlude: "Report: Redskins’ Name Only Offensive If You Think About What It Means."

4) Thank heavens: North Carolina finally dealt with its epidemic of voter fraud. Oh, wait.

North Carolina governor signs extensive Voter ID law. "The measure requires voters to present government-issued photo identification at the polls and shortens the early voting period from 17 to 10 days. It will also end pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old voters who will be 18 on Election Day and eliminates same-day voter registration...Other provisions in the new North Carolina law would prohibit paid voter registration drives, end straight-ticket voting (in which a voter can vote for all candidates of one party by voting just once — another area in which Democrats benefit) and loosening restrictions on poll watchers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Clinton defends Voting Rights Act, says states revive ‘old demons of discrimination.' "In an address focused on the role of the law in American society, Clinton emphatically entered the debate about minority voting rights and made some of her most political remarks since stepping down as secretary of state this year...Clinton’s address to the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco was the first in what she said will be a series of major addresses this fall about the challenges undermining Americans’ faith in government." Philip Rucker in The Washington Post.

Online interlude: Go look at this beautiful interactive on the evolution of the Internet.

5) More leaks on the Fed succession

The Fed race is heating up. "Divisions are surfacing among leading advisers to President Barack Obama on who the next chairman of the Federal Reserve should be, though Larry Summers remains the front-runner according to persons familiar with the White House deliberations. Top White House aide and Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett is quietly weighing in to support Fed vice chairman Janet Yellen...Jarrett is outnumbered by the Summers camp which includes several top Obama economic advisers: director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget Sylvia Burwell and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew...Based on conversations with informed sources, they place the probabilities at: Summers: 60 percent; Yellen 35 percent; someone else 5 percent." Albert R. Hunt in Bloomberg.

...But markets don't even care. "[I]nflation expectations have barely shifted, even as the fortunes of Summers and Yellen have reversed. That is, the market appears to expect similar inflation outcomes, on average, under either one...All told, the most likely interpretation is that the markets judge the Summers-versus-Yellen race as a nonevent. If so, that would represent a break with history; it is unusual for financial markets to shrug off changes in central-bank leadership. Research by Ken Kuttner and Adam Posen shows that global bond, stock and foreign-exchange markets tend to respond rather sharply to news about the appointment of new central-bank chiefs." Justin Wolfers in Bloomberg.

How does Janet Yellen think about financial regulation? "Janet Yellen, a top contender to lead the Federal Reserve, has evolved—in her own words—from a slightly "docile" regional bank regulator into a proponent of hard and clear rules designed to make banks less risky...An examination of her record suggests she pre-emptively warned colleagues about problems in the real-estate market but didn't take aggressive action to address them. While some bankers overseen by Ms. Yellen describe her as a determined regulator, critics note that she had a front-row seat for some of the turbulence that sent the economy into a tailspin and could have done more to prevent rampant real-estate speculation." Damian Paletta in The Wall Street Journal.

ALTMAN: An emerging argument for Summers is he'd be cool in crisis. "The next Fed chair must be experienced in managing crises such as these. That brings us to the apparent choice between the two lead candidates...Prof Summers had the key role in the Clinton Treasury during both the Asian financial crisis and the Mexican default. And, later, in the Obama White House during the huge credit crisis in 2009. It would be hard to find an American who is more battle-hardened. That is why he should be the choice." Roger Altman in The Financial Times.

Larry Summers is not the wind beneath Bette Midler’s wings. "We’ve heard from economists and lawmakers of the left and right, and before too long we’ll hear who President Obama thinks should be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. But what does Bette Midler think? On Monday, the world finally learned, as the Divine Miss M shared her opinions of leading candidate Larry Summers on Twitter. She does not care for him!" Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

In other news, Rick Santorum says the term "middle class" is "Marxism talk." "Rick Santorum says the term “middle class” is “Marxism talk” since America doesn’t have any classes. “Since when in America do we have classes?” Santorum asked a Republican gathering in Lyon County, Iowa, “There’s no class in America.” He added that the GOP, unlike Democrats,“values the dignity of every human life,” and therefore shouldn’t use the term—which he has actually used repeatedly." Brian Tashman in Right Wing Watch.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

China will spend roughly the GDP of Hong Kong to fight air pollution. Brad Plumer.

Americans are having babies early to save on their taxes. Dylan Matthews.

Why do Californians use less electricity than everyone else? Brad Plumer.

Larry Summers is not the wind beneath Bette Midler’s wings. Neil Irwin.

Liberals and ‘libertarian populists’ are wrong: politics isn’t a zero-sum fight between corporations and the poor. Ezra Klein.

Eric Holder is cutting federal drug sentences. That will make a small dent in the U.S. prison population. Dylan Matthews.

The war on drugs is breaking the Justice Department’s budget. Brad Plumer.

Trade with developing countries just got more expensive, thanks to Tom Coburn. Lydia DePillis.

Smoke pot and test well as a kid? You’re more likely to be an entrepreneur. Lydia DePillis.

A Hyperloop might be far more expensive than Elon Musk thinks. Brad Plumer.

Et Cetera

Obama to embark on two-day bus tour after Vineyard vacation. Justin Sink in The Hill.

Law to set flood-insurance premiums at actuarially-fair level leads to huge jump in costSiobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

Push to legalize children of illegal immigrants is new flash point in debate. David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

NLRB finally working with full slate of board members. Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Social Security Administration now processing same-sex marriage benefit claims. Eric Yoder in The Washington Post.

US subpoenas Goldman Sachs in inquiry into aluminum warehouses. David Kocieniewski in The New York Times.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

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