This post of Kevin Drum's is pretty interesting, and since I don't have anything interesting to say today, I'll just send you there. Here's the upshot: the per capita number of people we lock up today is actually the same as it was in the 1940s and 50s, *if* you add up all the people in prison and all the people in mental institutions. You can make the case that what we are doing now, to send our prison incarceration rates through the roof, is make criminals out of people that 50 or 60 years ago we institutionalized. Of course, it doesn't exactly work out like that. But the charts pretty convincingly hint at it. And either way, pretty fascinating to find out that when you add up the 2 numbers, it's about the same as it was back then, they've just swapped places in prominence.
In addition, the article he points to makes reference to the fact that most prison population studies (hmm...anyone reading this blog have an interest in that sort of thing and can comment intelligently?...feel free) are questionable as a result.
Since practically none of our studies on prisons, guns, abortion, education, unemployment, capital punishment, etc., controls for institutionalization writ large, most of what we claim to know about these effects may be on shaky groundCheck out the charts if nothing else.