New Report on Incarceration and Community Corrections

The Pew Center on the States just released a new report entitled One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.  It’s available here, and a couple of news stories about it are here and here.

The title reflects the proportion of American adults that is under some form of “correctional control,” i.e., in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole.  The proportion is much higher for men (1 in 18) and African-Americans (1 in 11), and the report indicates that the overall proportion has nearly doubled in the last 20 years.  It argues that this increase cannot be explained by increased crime, but rather, is the result of changes in sentencing laws.  It also contends that we have passed the point of diminishing returns, i.e., that continued increases in correctional spending provide scant returns in terms of crime prevention, certainly a legitimate issue to raise in tight budgetary times.

I’m not a criminologist, and I don’t know whether the report’s arguments are correct, though the raw statistics are certainly impressive.  It is worth noting, though, that the trends identified in the report are much less pronounced in North Carolina than in many other states.  The numbers in North Carolina are still large: about 1 in every 110 adults in North Carolina is in prison, and 1 in 58 is on probation.  But we rank 29th in incarceration rate, 30th in probation rate, and 31st in overall correctional control rate, all below average.  Furthermore, our correctional control growth rate over the past 20 years has been slower than the national average, dramatically so with respect to incarceration.  I suspect that this is partly a result of Structured Sentencing, which provides some consistency to judges’ sentencing decisions and limits any upward creep in sentencing.

None of this means that we shouldn’t look carefully at corrections spending, which amounts to $1.2 billion each year, or a bit over 6% of the state’s budget.  But it is also important to look carefully at the Pew Center report, and to avoid painting North Carolina with too broad a brush.