Why the drop in incarceration for public order crimes?
January 12, 2008 9:43 PM   Subscribe

According to these pages on the U.S. Bureau of Justice site, imprisonment for public order offenses suddenly fell by a third in 2002. Why?
posted by painquale to Law & Government (11 answers total)
Wild guess: a change in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines?
posted by jayder at 9:49 PM on January 12, 2008

I can only think that they changed the definition to exclude a particular crime. But so far I can't find any evidence for my theory.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:13 PM on January 12, 2008

Okay, ignore my answer, I didn't notice that the chart concerns inmates under jurisdiction of state correctional authorities.
posted by jayder at 10:42 PM on January 12, 2008

These are state correctional facilities which rely on the states/institutions themselves for the data. The problem with this is that any change in the way they report these statistics and changing requirements, that are not necessarily published, at the local level has a direct impact on these numbers. These statistics suffer from the same problems as the Uniform Crime Report. Additionally there may have been legislation passed to relieve congestion in the prison/ system. Most likely they lowered the standards for parole. One example.
If you search, you may also run across mention of ROBD or 'running out of bed dates'. Apparently, around this time, there was something of a crisis with the overcrowding situation.
posted by IronLizard at 2:08 AM on January 13, 2008

I notice that during those same years (2001-2002), there's also a larger-than-normal increase in the number of property and drug crimes -- an increase of 39,000 between the two, which is roughly the same size as the decrease in the number of public order crimes.

Perhaps there was a change in the classification system used by BJS so that some offenses formerly classified as "public order" were newly-classified as "drug" or "property" offenses? Or perhaps, given that the numbers are based only on the most serious offense for which the perpetrator was convicted, in 2002 they re-classified drug and property offenses as "more serious" than public order offenses.
posted by Doofus Magoo at 7:22 AM on January 13, 2008

What IronLizard said seems like the most reasonable and probable answer to me, but I also recall that the Ashcroft Justice Department, specifically the FBI, announced in the wake of 9/11 that pursuit of white collar crime would be deemphasized in favor of going after terrorism, and I also thought I saw my local police department lose interest in all sorts of public order offenses and minor property crimes in favor of looking for signs of possible terror attacks in the offing, and monitoring populations they thought might be the source of such attacks, in coordination with the Feds-- to the point that it felt more like an instrumentality of the federal government than anything local.
posted by jamjam at 8:46 AM on January 13, 2008

Response by poster: Right, I should point out that this phenomenon only occurred in State prisons. Appendix table 13 of this pdf indicates that inmates incarcerated in Federal prisons for public order crimes have been steadily increasing.

I'm tempted to think that IronLizard is right: in 2002, everyone got parole. A statistic showing that there was no change in convictions would settle the matter, but I'm having a tough time finding one. Also, in order to produce such large drop, a bunch of states would have to have individually changed parole standards at the same time. Why the synchrony? I wonder why 2002 was such a big year.
posted by painquale at 9:09 AM on January 13, 2008

From a cursory search, it also appears that there was a drop in juvenile offenders being charged in some states in 2002.
posted by lassie at 11:10 AM on January 13, 2008

I wonder if there was some change in the way certain offences were prosecuted (in response to 9/11?) so that people who did X were previously charged with offence Y (classified as a public order offence) but are/were now being charged with offence Z (not classified as a public order offence) instead.
posted by winston at 11:40 AM on January 13, 2008

If memory serves me correctly, in the Australian context (for what it's worth) "public order offences" are typically generic offences which depend more on police discretion than anything else: "breaching the peace" or being a "public nuisance" for example. The actual incident - say, a bar fight - might be something that could be tried as "assault & battery" or similar, but somehow "breaching the peace" is less difficult to prove, or less restrictive in terms of the elements of the offence.

My guess would be that public order offences were simply tried as other offences due to changed legal definitions and/or increased police powers, as winston said.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:30 PM on January 13, 2008

The problem is that the other categories didn't show a corresponding rise,
posted by IronLizard at 7:50 PM on January 13, 2008

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