By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:

  1. A new crime crisis: 'catch and release'
  2. Places & Culture
  3. City Scene
  4. Weekly Digest


Reader Brent Gibson caught me on a statement I submitted somewhat nervously in my April news in review column last month. "The prison system's cycle of frustration reached a milestone," I wrote, "as the country's prison population surpassed two million for the first time ever, despite a decade-long decline in crime." Gibson wrote: "Isn't it logical to assume that the decade-long decline in violent crime is because more of the people who commit said crimes are being put away, and for longer periods of time?" The reason I was nervous was that this seems like a question of which came first, the chicken or the egg—is crime dropping because we're locking more people up, or are we locking more people up even though crime is dropping? In other words, are there fewer criminals on the streets because more are in prison, or are we actually filling prisons faster at a time when there are fewer criminals to fill them with?

After a courteous exchange with Gibson, I wanted to do a little more looking into the incarceration increase. According to the Washington Post story my statement linked to, two-thirds of the nation's two million inmates are in state and federal prisons (which hold people convicted of felonies); the rest are in jails (which hold those convicted of misdemeanors and those awaiting trial). According to recent issues of Wired and In These Times, the U.S. rate of 700 inmates per 100,000 people is the highest in the world.

But if you look at this series of charts from the Department of Justice, the prison population planes steadily upward over the last 20 years, seemingly oblivious to the peaks and valleys of rates of homicide and other violent crime (though these start to sink steadily in the early 1990s). A more consistent overlap occurs between two graphs on the page: prison population and drug arrests, both of which rose at a nearly constant rate over the last two decades. More than half of the nation's inmates, In These Times says, are locked away for drug offenses. Which is too bad, because drug arrests seem a decidedly inferior method of addressing the nation's drug problem compared with drug treatment.

There is much more to be said about the social and moral roots of crime (the latter of which the secular media all but ignore, while Christian leaders tend to downplay the former). But there is one aspect of the incarceration boom that people of all viewpoints should be able to rally around, and that's the issue of how well we are preparing prisoners to be released. And this is not a pretty picture. In an Atlantic Monthly article aptly titled "Catch and Release" (reprinted here at, the New America Foundation's Margaret Talbot reported that 1,600 prisoners are released every day. "Many will be drug abusers who received no treatment for their addiction while on the inside, sex offenders who got no counseling, and illiterate high school dropouts who took no classes and acquired no job skills," she wrote. "Only about 13 percent will have participated in any kind of pre-release program to prepare them for life outside," As a wave of tough-on-crime legislation passed in the 1990s, lengthening the average prison sentence, Talbot said, funding for vocational and educational programs for prisoners declined. Even if it is hard to muster sympathy for people who break the law, and even if it is easier for politicians get elected with lock-em-up slogans rather than long-term solutions, the stakes have never been higher for citizens of various political views to demand that society must, out of self-interest if not compassion, more effectively serve its inmate population.


-"Throwing Away The Key," from In These Times magazine.

-Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship Ministries

-The plight of African American men in America, from the Atlantic Monthly.

-"The Falling Crime Rate" from the Koch Crime Institute

-Graphs of New York City's 1990s plunge in crime rates

-Earlier in this weblog: Is the world as violent as it looks on TV?


From the Washington Post:

NORILSK, Russia—For decades, this frigid arctic city was Joseph Stalin's secret, a closed metropolis built on the bones of slave labor to tap and smelt the rich nickel ore that lay beneath its permafrost surface. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Norilsk was thrown open to outsiders, many presumed that the city's residents would rejoice at finally being linked to the rest of the world. They didn't. Almost overnight, residents here say, immigrants from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine poured in. An estimated 30,000 of them set up ramshackle stands to peddle clothes and food and competed for high-paying jobs at city plants and mines, bringing with them a measure of crime and drug addiction. Residents raised such a fuss that by the fall of 2001, city and regional officials had persuaded the Kremlin to once again restrict entry to the city of roughly 230,000 and three satellite towns. Now foreigners are allowed in only by invitation of an immediate family member or a commercial enterprise … To [union leader Valeri] Melnikov, the new rules simply reinforce the power of Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel producer, and by extension the power of its main investor. full story

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