September 11, 2014

Incarceration within the status-striving and inequality cycle: Prison boom driven by careerist prosecutors

Periods of rising inequality and status-striving are marked by a punitive rather than a rehabilitative approach to criminal justice.

The dog-eat-dog norm says you shouldn't care if someone's life will be permanently screwed up by going to jail, regardless of their offense. You've stayed out of jail, and that's all that matters. You aren't going to be the one who has to deal with their assimilation back into society — let someone else work with and live next to those who've been shaped by the hard-time lifestyle. And if you can get politicians to shift the costs around, you may not have to pay too much for their incarceration either.

The all-in-it-together norm says that criminals ought to pay for their offenses, but that those seeking retribution should accommodate their wishes with those of the general public, who would prefer not to have to pay for incarceration, let alone have to live next to or work with someone who's been shaped by prison norms rather than normal society norms for however-long they were locked up.

Seeking vengeance poses a substantial risk of innocent bystanders getting caught in the crossfire, in one way or another. Promoting stability within the community will necessarily be opposed to fanning the flames of vengeance, however righteous the avengers feel their cause to be.

When communal cohesion loses its moral appeal, therefore, vengeance against criminals — regardless of the severity of their crimes, or indeed whether they're actually guilty or innocent — will be allowed to grow unchecked. Soon enough, criminal punishment will develop into a mass spectator bloodsport. Feeling a daily endorphin rush from tuning into other people's punishment is the ultimate grassroots expression of the dog-eat-dog morality.

It is no coincidence that bloodsports rise in popularity during periods of increasing status-striving, societal instability, and inequality — the UFC and World Star Hip Hop in our time, or the ancient gladiators who became a mass spectacle only after the Pax Romana had given way to the Imperial Crisis of the third century through the eventual disintegration during the fifth.

Where exactly in the criminal justice hierarchy does responsibility lie for the current boom in the prison population? It seems to be located at the stage of prosecutors deciding to file felony charges for a given arrest, which takes place at the county level rather than higher up. Crime rates are down since a peak in 1992, arrests per crime are not up, and neither are conviction rates per felony case, nor prison admissions per conviction. Drug offenses are not directly driving the boom either, as they are a small chunk of incarcerations (although they're much greater at the level of arrests).

This analysis comes from Pfaff (2012), "The micro and macro causes of prison growth," an easily readable and chart-packed article that you can read for free here. Some excerpts:

Over the past four decades, prison populations in the United States have exploded. As Figure 1 demonstrates, from the 1920s (when reliable statistics first become available) through the mid-1970s, the incarceration rate hovered around 100 per 100,000 people. These rates were so stable that a leading criminologist argued in 1979 that political pressures would continue to keep the rate around 100 per 100,000. Thus, the subsequent quintupling of the incarceration rate over the next forty years, with the prison population growing by over 1.3 million inmates, was an unexpected and unprecedented development. . .

As I show below, we know the answer to the micro question much better than that to the macro. On the micro side, data indicate that at least since 1994, prison growth has been driven primarily by prosecutors increasing the rate at which they file charges against arrestees. None of the other possible sources seems to matter: arrests (and arrests per crime), prison admissions per felony filing, and time served have generally been flat or falling over that time. . .

Thus, sentence length does not appear to drive prison growth, implying that admissions must be doing the heavy lifting. . .

Between 1994 and 2008, filings grew by 37.4% and admissions by a nearly identical 40%. This is actually a more remarkable number than it might first appear. As Figure 5B demonstrates, this is a period of declining arrests: in my thirty-four state sample, arrests fell by 10.1%, slightly above the national decline of 8.4%. Thus, filings and admissions rose significantly during a period when the number of defendants declined sharply. . .

The flat incarceration rate during the Great Compression, and soaring rate since the '70s, establishes the link with the status-striving and inequality cycle. It's clear how sending more arrestees to prison will widen inequality by growing a larger lumpenprole class. Where does status-striving fit in? We know it must be with prosecutors, so it's not hard to imagine the story.

When status-striving was shameful, prosecutors didn't try to puff up their own ego and lard up their career resume with over-zealous felony charges against arrestees. Once status-striving became approved and encouraged, they did what everyone else in the economy had started doing.

Rising levels of status-striving lead to an over-production of lawyers (see Peter Turchin's discussion here), and they need somewhere to go for status and job security. If they were skilled at performing before a general audience of voters, they sought election into the legislature or the executive branch of government. If they were good at crunching numbers and pursuing enrichment at all costs, they went into mergers & acquisitions at a Biglaw firm. If their comparative advantage lay more in vindictiveness and sadism, they set up shop in the local prosecutor's office.

It's hard for a lowly prosecutor to get nationally famous or command salaries at the level of the big dogs (Senators, Wall St. lawyers). So they devote most of their energies at the county level, becoming locally famous as pitbull prosecutors. Local / mediocre status is better than no status, and if you're a JD flunkie, this may be your only real shot at making a name for yourself and getting paid well.

As this trend gets worse, prosecutors will become widely reviled as self-serving zealots rather than neutral agents of justice for the public. The incarceration rate will then turn down as it did during the Great Compression, for better or worse.

Here is a final graph from Pfaff's article, showing not incarcerations per capita, but incarcerations per crime — how likely is a crime going to result in someone getting sent to jail?

Now we see that incarceration rates per crime committed actually fell through the '60s and '70s. This is the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction — the criminal justice system aiming too much toward accommodation that even violent crimes were less and less likely to result in an incarceration. So does too much vindictiveness bring about rehabilitation, and too much rehabilitation bring about vindictiveness.


  1. Love these new dog-eat-dog posts.

    Wonder how you see it with regards to sexuality - whether people are now obsessed with status because it provides more returns in a hookup culture, or whether the hookup culture is a result of the dog-eat-dog mentality causing people to refuse to feel like they're "settling".

  2. There are two separate parts to the hookup culture. One is how common it is for people to be sleeping around -- way less common than 25 years ago. This moves along with the cocooning-and-crime cycle: outgoing and active, or cocooning and celibate.

    But then there's the qualitative side -- among those who are having sex, what is the nature of their relationship or bond? More shallow and fleeting. There were already lots of pop songs about that in the '80s -- "Little Red Corvette," "Maneater," "You Give Love a Bad Name," and so on.

    Contrast that to the '60s and early '70s, when pop songs reflected the rising levels of getting it on, but were not talking about running through one relationship after another, getting your heart broken every couple of months, etc. "Then He Kissed Me," "Do Wah Diddy Diddy," "Sugar, Sugar," and the like, signal the beginning of young people being more outgoing and sexually active, but they're still bubble-gummy in their focus on stable, monogamous long-term relationships.

    That's why some folks have a soft spot for the '60s -- it was a more outgoing and socializing time, and unlike the Eighties inequality was falling and competitiveness was still shameful. That would start to unravel with the late '60s and early '70s, but most Boomers don't prize that counter-cultural mini-moment. If they're stuck in the '60s like my dad, it's more like the mid-'60s -- the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Beatles circa the Help! album / movie, the Rolling Stones up through "Ruby Tuesday" (the very beginning of '67)... the pre-freak-out '60s.

  3. The shift toward transience among sexually active folks is easy to explain in status-striving terms -- they're holding out for the perfect person, because they're too awesome to settle for anything less, yet nobody is perfect, so it's on to the next one.

    BTW, there's also a qualitative shift in celibacy. In the old days, you had to be the biggest loser imaginable not to get married and have sex, and they got married young. They had a humble view of themselves, and figured that the buck-toothed guy wasn't half bad if he had a stable job, and the girl with rat's nest hair wasn't half bad herself if she could cook, sew, and keep the house in order.

    No longer do we see marriages that begin with Dork meets Dorkette. The bottom half of the totem pole think they deserve the upper half. There's no way that'll ever happen, so they choose celibacy rather than marriage (the only route to sex that the lower half can rely on long-term). It's guys and girls both looking down their noses at the opposite sex at their own level, not the fault of either sex alone. It's status-striving among both sexes that keeps them apart from each other.

    So now instead of the bottom 1% being out of the game, it's more like the bottom 20%, 40% or whatever.

    Everyone's getting married later, and having kids later. It takes longer to find someone who meets a higher threshold, and it takes longer to start a family when the husband and wife would rather accumulate more status first.

  4. Prison is a huge industry too, and I'd imagine there's been a large growth in prison administrators.

  5. On incarceration, while true in the US, you don't see a great deal of change across the Anglosphere where the same inequality dynamics exist, though - (Crime peaks the late 1990s in England and Wales as well, so there's not really a sign of disproportionate incarceration in that line).

    Perhaps prosecutions are not driven by prosecutors decisions and careers in the rest of the Anglosphere though, or defence is much more prestigious (so careerist defence lawyers offsets careerist prosecutors). The US is a big outlier in prison population and incarceration rates.

    Re: incarcerations per crime, wonder what incarceration per crime looks like homicide only or violent assault only. If homicide rises, but falls relative to less serious assaults, then you might have less incarceration per "violent crime".

    Also, as crime falls, you might see more prosecution per crime, just to keep the courts and prisons in business (no profession wants economic contraction), particularly if the number of lawyers and judges increases.

    On law Francis Fukuyama has been on a tip where he has been describing the decay of American political institutions as driven in part by an increase in the courts as the source of de facto legislative authority. This might link up to Turchin's idea of overproduction of elites (including lawyers).

    No longer do we see marriages that begin with Dork meets Dorkette.

    This is plausible, but I think it is also the case that, as assortative mating has increased (and as assortative mating has changed to reflect assortative mating for a success at all costs mentality), there's less chance of a dork ending up with a non-dork as well, as the non-dorky are holding out more.

    So people at the low end of the status scale from both sexes who are still relatively more likely to hold a humble, non-competitive self concept aren't necessarily rejecting matches that they might have entered into in the past, but rejecting matches they always rejected but which are now more common.

    Marriage and kids are most common these days among religious people of low intelligence, who I would tend to think of as kind of dorky, but not in a geeky way.

  6. Pfaff mentions that the US is the only major country to see this change, so I assume it has something to do with how our criminal justice system is structured.

    At the same time, Dickensian England didn't look very different -- huge moves to sweep the poor out of sight, throw everyone in the workhouse (prison labor is another source of lowering wages below what was thought to be rock bottom), debtors' prisons, etc. I'm not sure what changed in the meantime, so that England doesn't look as Dickensian this time around.

    "Also, as crime falls, you might see more prosecution per crime, just to keep the courts and prisons in business (no profession wants economic contraction)"

    You don't see more arrests per crime, though, despite the fact that police forces don't want contraction. They're way more numerous nowadays, too, just like lawyers. Their main job seems to be harassing folks (no arrest or a frivolous arrest), rather than making an arrest that will wind up in a prosecution or incarceration.

  7. "So people at the low end of the status scale from both sexes who are still relatively more likely to hold a humble, non-competitive self concept aren't necessarily rejecting matches that they might have entered into in the past, but rejecting matches they always rejected but which are now more common."

    However, the fraction of those folks who truly are humble and accommodating is tiny. They're more likely to be the flabby, homely looking guy with no job prospects who goes out in public wearing low-hanging jean shorts and a t-shirt from Hot Topic. He's too good for his female counterpart: only porn will do, perhaps augmented by a lapdance whenever he has a little more money.

    They had the same thing back in the Gilded Age, they called it the "sporting" life -- gambling, drinking, visiting prostitutes. It was a far more degenerate drop-out culture among the lower class than we see today, where video games have replaced gambling as the main game addiction, and where internet porn has replaced brothels and streetwalkers.

  8. I see the prison lifestyle itself as the main problem in all of this. Concentrating, corralling, studying, and exacerbating the pathologies of violent and dysfunctional individuals together creates ripple effects all throughout the society, and makes prison-ish thinking the rule rather than the exception among the supervisors. No prisons, no careerist prosecutors, no institutionalized population, no expected better conditions for the poor who commit crimes, no easy test subjects for universitarians to study, no giant tax sinks, no hiding the problem, no playing around with what the law means.

    Down with private prisons, up with public executions. Cowboys accept no substitutes.

  9. And now we have Democrat and Republican prosecutors going against their political opponents. Like Alvin Bragg going against Trump.


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