Niagara Gazette

Web Extra

June 30, 2014

A statistical blind spot that makes the US crime rate seem lower than it is

JOPLIN, Mo. — Imagine an American city with 2.2 million people, making it the fourth largest in the nation behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Now imagine that city is a place where residents suffer routine violence and cruelty at rates unlike anywhere else in the country, where they are raped and beaten with alarming frequency by their neighbors and even the city officials who are paid to keep them safe. Now imagine that we, as a nation, didn't consider the vast majority of that violence to be criminal or even worth recording. That is, in effect, the state of the U.S. correctional system today.

Each year, the federal government releases two major snapshots of crime in America: The Uniform Crime Reports, written by the FBI, and the National Crime Victimization Survey, compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). As part of the former, the FBI tallies a year's worth of crime as reported by police departments around the country. The latter estimates the same by surveying a sample of the American public. The two reports provide the best available data on crime in America and together are used as something of a proxy for how successful our justice system is at curbing crime around the country. According to both, America has become significantly safer over the past two decades, with today's violent crime rate nearly half of what it was at the start of the 1990s. Neither report, however, takes into account what happens inside U.S. prisons, where countless crimes go unreported and the relatively few that are recorded end up largely ignored.

If we had a clearer sense of what happens behind bars, we'd likely see that we are reducing our violent crime rate, at least in part, with a statistical sleight of hand — by redefining what crime is and shifting where it happens. "The violence is still there," says Lovisa Stannow, the executive director of Just Detention International, a human rights organization dedicated to ending sexual abuse and violence in prisons and jails. "It's just been moved from our communities to our jails and prisons where it's much more hidden." It counts as an assault when one drug dealer beats up a second on the streets of Chicago, why shouldn't it count as sexual assault when one of them is raped after he is sent to prison? It is a crime when someone beats his wife, so why shouldn't it be a crime when that same person attacks a prison guard?

Technically, of course, they are crimes — only the likelihood that someone will be investigated, charged and prosecuted for them are small. The assault — especially if it's between inmates — is likely to never be officially noted. The Department of Justice chooses to exclude the bulk of violence committed inside its correctional facilities from the national crime surveys. These wholesale omissions make it impossible to paint a complete picture of life behind bars in America, but there are nonetheless bits and pieces of the puzzle that we can pull together from what little is available.

The FBI, for example, counts aggravated assaults, while the Bureau of Prisons tracks inmate violations for assault on fellow prisoners and guards. The BJS self-reported survey lumps rapes and sexual assaults together, but the National Inmate Survey uses a "sexual victimization" catchall. What might get you arrested outside of prison won't necessarily earn you a violation inside one, and vice versa. Because as much as we may want to believe that putting more people in prison has made our country a less violent one, the numbers we have suggest that that violence itself doesn't disappear, it is simply relegated to a place the public can barely see. Regardless of whether you believe that's a fair trade-off, it stands to reason that the brutality occurring behind bars deserves a fuller accounting — particularly given that we know there are innocent men and women serving sentences they don't deserve.

So, again, imagine this correctional metropolis, and those to whom it is home. First the good news, which may come as a surprise: Someone living there is less likely to be murdered than they would be elsewhere in America. That, however, is where the good news ends. The bad news, of which there is plenty, is that the life he faces is so brutal that he is more likely to commit suicide than if he were free, and his chances of being raped and beaten, possibly repeatedly, appear exponentially greater. All told, there are likely at least hundreds of thousands of violent acts that occur in this city every year that could be counted as a crime if they occurred on the other side of the fence. For comparison, there were 1.2 million violent crimes reported to the FBI by police departments across the country in 2012, and a little more than 5.8 million self-reported by inmates that same year, according to the BJS survey.

With the exception of fatalities — which, after all, pretty much count themselves — the Justice Department statisticians go to the greatest trouble to tally rapes and sexual assaults inside prisons, or at least they have since Congress passed the Prison Rape Elimination Act in 2003 mandating for the first time that they go through the trouble of estimating the crisis. The most recent numbers are staggering. In a 2012 survey, a full 4 percent of the nation's prisoners and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported being sexually victimized in the previous 12 months, more than half of which said the alleged incident involved a prison guard or other staff member. When you account for inmate turnover that figure represents roughly 200,000 possible victims a year, according to BJS.

"Rape is not part of the penalty," says Stannow. "It's enormously important that we have a detailed picture of what's happening because that's the data that we need to solve the problem." In the rest of the country, meanwhile, the self-reported total of rapes and sexual assaults in 2012 was 346,830, representing a rate of 1.3 per 100,000 people, or 0.0013 percent.

While rapes have garnered the most attention since the government first began surveying inmates in 2004, it is the near-constant physical abuse — again, at the hands of both inmates and guards — that goes almost entirely unquestioned. The numbers here, too, are imperfect and somewhat dated, but a self-reported survey from 2004 found that 16 percent of state inmates said they had been injured in a fight since they began doing time. Administrative prison records offer another data point: In 2000, inmates were given 52,307 violations for assaulting fellow prisoners or guards, for a rate of 4,260 violations per 100,000 prisoners. Outside prison walls, meanwhile, the FBI tallied 911,706 aggravated assaults that same year, for a rate of 324 for every 100,000 people.

The number of people incarcerated in the United States quadrupled during the past four decades before plateauing (and then slightly receding) in the past five years. The inmate population grew so fast during the boom that states were unable to build prisons fast enough to keep up: At last count, more than half of the state prison systems, as well as the federal one, were operating at or above 100-percent capacity. If we choose to continue to lock people up at a rate unparalleled in the world, we should at least be honest and acknowledge that doing so is aimed at eliminating violence from our streets, not necessarily our country.

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Web Extra
  • NIA iPad pals art 1 120613 Has the iPad lost its swag?

    The company reported this week that sales of its sleek, pricey tablet were down 19 percent from last quarter and 9 percent year-over-year. CEO Tim Cook tried to reassure investors that Apple's new partnership with IBM to sell its devices to IBM's corporate customers will help make iPads ubiquitous in the workplace. "This isn't something that worries us," he said of the iPad sales decline. But the numbers are disappointing no matter how you spin them.

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Facebook continues moneymaking trend

    Facebook seems to have figured out - for now at least - the holy grail for all media right now: how to make money selling mobile ads.

    July 25, 2014

  • Police Brutality screen shot. Technology plays key part in battling police brutality (VIDEO)

    Allegations of police brutality are nothing new -- as long as there has been law enforcement, citizens have registered claims that some officers cross the line. But in the last few years, the claims of excessive force are being corroborated with new technology from cell phone cameras, police dash-cams and surveillance videos. 

    July 25, 2014 1 Photo

  • Arizona's prolonged lethal injection is fourth in U.S. this year

    Arizona's execution of double-murderer Joseph Wood marked the fourth time this year that a state failed to dispatch a convict efficiently, according to the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal group.3

    July 25, 2014

  • Vader Darth Vader is polling higher than all potential 2016 presidential candidates

    On the other hand, with a net favorability of -8, Jar Jar is considerably more popular than the U.S. Congress, which currently enjoys a net favorability rating of -65.

    July 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 2.00.42 PM.png VIDEO: Train collides with semi truck carrying lighter fluid

    A truck driver from Washington is fortunate to be alive after driving his semi onto a set of tracks near Somerset, Ky., and being struck by a locomotive, which ignited his load of charcoal lighter fluid.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • An oncologist uses scorpion venom to locate cancer cells

    Olson, a pediatric oncologist and research scientist in Seattle, has developed a compound he calls Tumor Paint. When injected into a cancer patient, it seems to light up all the malignant cells so surgeons can easily locate and excise them.

    July 22, 2014

  • mama.jpg What we get wrong about millennials living at home

    If the media is to be believed, America is facing a major crisis. "Kids," some age 25, 26, or even 30 years old, are living out of their childhood bedrooms and basements at alarmingly high numbers. The hand-wringing overlooks one problem: It's all overblown.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg Expectations too high for a rehabbing Woods

    Tiger Woods finished near bottom last weekend at Royal Liverpool, drawing out his drought of major tournament wins. Despite the disappointing showing, Woods' return to form remains a matter of when, not if.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • 110720 Walmart.jpg Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
House Ads
AP Video
Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Kerry: No Deal Yet on 7-Day Gaza Truce Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma More M17 Bodies Return, Sanctions on Russia Grow Gaza Residents Mourn Dead Amid Airstrikes Raw: Deadly Tornado Hits Virginia Campground Ohio State Marching Band Chief Fired After Probe Raw: Big Rig Stuck in Illinois Swamp Cumberbatch Brings 'Penguins' to Comic-Con Raw: Air Algerie Crash Site in Mali Power to Be Restored After Wash. Wildfire Crashed Air Algerie Plane Found in Mali Israel Mulls Ceasefire Amid Gaza Offensive In Case of Fire, Oxygen Masks for Pets Mobile App Gives Tour of Battle of Atlanta Sites
Opinion
House Ads
Night & Day
Twitter News
Follow us on twitter
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Front page