The Corner

Politics & Policy

FIRST STEP: A Very Basic Point on the Numbers

(Robert Galbraith/REUTERS)

I’m what you might call a lukewarmer on criminal-justice reform. I agree that some aspects of the current system have gotten out of control; I think that we have the statistical tools we need to identify and release more low-risk inmates; I am also keenly aware that our prisons are not, in fact, filled to the brim with people who just got caught smoking a joint once. On balance I think the current bill is an improvement, though I wish more of Ted Cruz’s amendment — making certain serious offenders ineligible for “time credits” when they participate in recidivism-reduction programs — had been incorporated. Regarding Tom Cotton’s more aggressive proposal for changing the bill further, I recommend his own piece right here at NRO as well as the argument from FreedomWorks that it’s an overly broad “poison pill.”

But in this post I just wanted to spell out the bill’s math a little bit. The Congressional Budget Office finds that it would reduce the prison population by 53,000 “person-years” over a decade. It adds that this is “roughly equivalent to reducing the federal prison population by 53,000 inmates in one year.”

Unsurprisingly I’ve seen this quoted a few times. What it actually refers to, though, is reducing the prison population by 53,000 for a year and then returning it to its previous level. (If the population stayed at the lower level it would keep adding person-years to the total.) It’s not even slightly helpful as a hypothetical outside the budget context.

Here’s a more useful approach: The current federal prison population is about 180,000. If you just crudely multiply that by ten, you get 1.8 million person-years over a decade. 53,000 is about 3 percent of that. That’s the ballpark we’re talking about, and don’t forget that only 13 percent of U.S. prisoners are in the federal (rather than state) system to begin with.

To be fair, there are wrinkles to this number that cut in the other direction as well. The effects of the legislation grow over time because the score starts in 2019 and some of the policies won’t go into effect immediately, and of course some of the effects are hard to predict because prison authorities will have discretion in their implementation. Bear all of these limitations in mind when you see the figure thrown about.

Most Popular

Elections

Weirdo O’Rourke

Friends of the young Bill Clinton and Barack Obama spoke of the special glow of promise they had about them, even back in their early twenties. Angels sat on their shoulders. History gave them a wink and said, “Hey, good lookin’, I’ll be back to pick you up later.” Robert O’Rourke? Not so much. He ... Read More
Education

Our Bankrupt Elite

Every element of the college admissions scandal, a.k.a “Operation Varsity Blues,” is fascinating. There are the players: the Yale dad who, implicated in a securities-fraud case, tipped the feds off to the caper; a shady high-school counselor turned admissions consultant; the 36-year-old Harvard grad who ... Read More
U.S.

McCain at Annapolis

President Trump has been doing a lot of tweeting today -- against TV programs, companies, and other things that have incurred his displeasure. These tweets make for interesting reading. One of them is this: So it was indeed (just proven in court papers) “last in his class” (Annapolis) John McCain that sent ... Read More
Health Care

David Brooks Forgets to Oppose Some Suicides

The well-meaning David Brooks urges us to prevent suicide in his most recent New York Times column. The crisis is certainly real. From "How to Fight Suicide:": You’ve probably seen the recent statistics about the suicide epidemic — that suicide rates over all have risen by over 30 percent this century; ... Read More