One of the most widely cited figures in criminal justice is America’s incarceration rate. About 2.2 million people were in our prisons and jails in 2014, or 900 for every 100,000 adults in the country, the highest of any major country on earth, reported The Marshall Project.
For years, criminal justice wonks have yearned for metrics that would tell us more: Are we locking up the truly dangerous criminals? Is the system working? How is California doing relative to Texas or Pennsylvania?
On Wednesday, the Pew Charitable Trusts and its Public Safety Performance Project offers what it calls “a more nuanced assessment” of punishment. Rather than measuring the ratio of inmates to residents of a given jurisdiction, it measures the ratio of inmates to serious crime.
“Using the punishment rate to examine the U.S. criminal justice system, Pew found that all states became more punitive from 1983 to 2013, even though they varied widely in the amount of punishment they imposed,” the report says. In 37 states the “punitiveness” more than doubled.
It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it underscores how complicated and difficult it is to really measure the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.
We’ve grown accustomed to a quantified world of ever more complicated data available at our fingertips, on everything from how we sleep and eat to how often left-handed pinch hitters hit ground rule doubles on rainy days.
“The incredible databases of what we have for sports just blow away anything there is in criminal justice. It's kind of crazy,” said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, adding, “We can't answer some of the most basic questions about one of the most important functions of a society.”
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