Inequality and Incarceration

As I did in my last post on incarceration, I’m going to take a simple look at the data on a topic way beyond the scope of a blog post. As I said last time, my interest was piqued in this topic by Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, which suggests that we should consider “penal practices less as a consequence of legal theories than as a chapter of political anatomy,” (p. 28) – that is, as a means of the more powerful groups in society exerting control over the lower classes. He even suggests that “the definition of offenses and their prosecution are carried out… in order to maintain the punitive mechanisms…” (p. 24) – that is, punishments don’t exist to enforce laws, laws exist to create opportunities to punish! As we were discussing this in class, the notion came up that if this were the real reason prisons existed than we would expect to see more incarceration in societies with greater inequality, as the upper classes would presumably have a greater need to surpress the much poorer lower classes. So, using the UN’s 2009 national Gini coefficients to estimate the ratio between the richest and the poorest members of the society, and King College’s 2008 estimates of national prison rates, I got this graph:

Prison Population per capita as a Function of national Gini coefficient

And here it is without two major outliers, the US and Russia:

Prison Population per capita as a function of national Gini coefficient, excluding the US and Russia

This looks like a striking relationship, suggesting that inequality is very good at predicting incarceration rates. Of course, this isn’t controlling for crime rates or anything else, it’s just a simple comparison. But, at least within the United States, inequality appears to have no effect on crime independent from predictors like wage. Likewise, in the US income inequality is not a strong predictor of incarceration rates when controlling for crime. How do we explain the apparent contradiction between these findings and the incarceration inequality relationship we see above?

It would seem that there is a third variable which leads to both high incarceration rates and major inequality. I was talking to an undergrad last weekend who is studying the economics of incarceration and she suggested that immigration may explain this discrepancy, as it can lead to increases in crime (and thereby incarceration) and inequality. The literature isn’t perfectly clear on the relationship between immigration and crime. Sociologists have found that immigration, even among non-English speakers, doesn’t increase crime (either violent or property) in the US but others, examining two immigration waves into the UK, find that when immigrants have difficulty finding jobs, they often resort to property crime. As for inequality, immigration does have a significant effect: as much as 5% of the increase in inequality in the US between 1980 and 2000 can be explained by immigration.

More generally, though, it may be that having a larger share of the population be young can lead to both of these things. As human capital gains more and more of a premium, being a young worker leads to lower relative wages than ever – and thus greater inequality. At the same time, young men are very given to crime. It may be, then, that most of what we’re seeing in the graph above is the powerful effect of demographics on all elements of society.

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3 Responses to Inequality and Incarceration

  1. Pingback: Vanity Fair: Inequality – Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1% « The Fifth Column

  2. Pingback: Inequality « Flickr Comments

  3. Pingback: Calculi's Politics Blog » Incarceration rates

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