'US Should significantly reduce rate of incarceration,' says new report

Apr 30, 2014

Given the minimal impact of long prison sentences on crime prevention and the negative social consequences and burdensome financial costs of U.S. incarceration rates, which have more than quadrupled in the last four decades, the nation should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce imprisonment rates, says a new report from the National Research Council.

A comprehensive review of data led the committee that wrote the report to conclude that the costs of the current rate of incarceration outweigh the benefits. The committee recommended that federal and state policymakers re-examine policies requiring mandatory and long sentences, as well as take steps to improve prison conditions and to reduce unnecessary harm to the families and communities of those incarcerated. In addition, it recommended a reconsideration of drug crime policy, given the apparently low effectiveness of a heightened enforcement strategy that resulted in a tenfold increase in the incarceration rate for drug offenses from 1980 to 2010—twice the rate for other crimes.

"We are concerned that the United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits," said committee chair Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society. A system that makes less use of incarceration can better achieve its aims than a harsher, more punitive system. There are common-sense, practical steps we can take to move in this direction."

The unprecedented and internationally unique rise in U.S. state and federal prison populations, from 200,000 inmates in 1973 to 1.5 million in 2009, occurred because of policy decisions such as mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeat offenses, and intensified criminalization of drug-related activity. Stricter sentencing policies were formed initially during a period of rising crime and social change; however, over the four decades when incarceration rates rose steadily, crime rates fluctuated.

The committee evaluated scientific evidence on the effects of high incarceration rates on public safety and U.S. society, as well as their effects on those in prison, their families, and the communities from which prisoners originate and to which they return. The following data illustrate the magnitude of incarceration rates, the racial disparities of incarceration, and societal impacts:

  • With the inclusion of local jails, the U.S. penal population totals 2.2 million adults, the largest in the world; the U.S. has nearly one-quarter of the world's prisoners, but only 5 percent of its population.
  • Nearly 1 in 100 adults is in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.
  • Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic.
  • Black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market.
  • In 2009, 62 percent of black children 17 or younger whose parents had not completed high school had experienced a parent being sent to prison, compared with 17 percent for Hispanic children and 15 percent for white children with similarly educated parents.

Another major consequence of high rates of incarceration is their considerable fiscal burden on society, the report says. Allocations for corrections have outpaced budget increases for nearly all other key government services, including education, transportation, and public assistance. State spending on corrections is the third highest category of general fund expenditures in most states today, ranked only behind Medicaid and education.

Estimating incarceration's impact on crime is challenging, and studies on this topic have produced divergent findings. However, the report concludes that the increase in incarceration may have caused a decrease in crime, but the magnitude of the reduction is highly uncertain and the results of most studies suggest it was unlikely to have been large. In addition, the deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best. Because recidivism rates decline significantly with age, lengthy sentences are an inefficient approach to preventing crime, unless they can specifically target high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders.

People who live in poor and minority communities have always had substantially higher rates of prison admission and return than other groups. Consequently, the effects of harsh penal policies in the past 40 years have fallen most heavily on blacks and Hispanics, especially the poorest, the report says. In 2010, the imprisonment rate for blacks was 4.6 times that for whites. This exceeds racial differences for many other common social indicators, from wealth and employment to infant mortality.

Incarceration correlates with negative social and economic outcomes for former prisoners and their families, and it is concentrated in communities already severely disadvantaged and least capable of absorbing additional adversities. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with incarcerated fathers increased from about 350,000 to 2.1 million—about 3 percent of all U.S. children. Further, men with a criminal record often experience reduced earnings and employment after prison, and housing insecurity and behavioral problems in children are hardships strongly related to fathers' incarceration, according to the report.

"When ex-inmates return to their communities, their lives often continue to be characterized by violence, joblessness, substance abuse, family breakdown, and neighborhood disadvantage," said committee vice chair Bruce Western, professor of sociology, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. "It can be challenging to draw strong causal conclusions from this research, but it's clear that incarceration is now a facet of the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities. Prisons are part of a poverty trap, with many paths leading in, but few leading out."

The report notes that deciding whether incarceration is justified requires an analysis of social costs versus benefits. This equation should weigh the importance of recognizing the harm experienced by crime victims, appropriately addressing those harms, and reinforcing society's disapproval of criminal behavior. However, the committee stressed that future policy decisions should not only be based on empirical evidence but also should follow these four guiding principles, which have been notably absent from recent policy debates on the proper use of prisons:

  • Proportionality: Criminal offenses should be sentenced in proportion to their seriousness.
  • Parsimony: The period of confinement should be sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing policy.
  • Citizenship: The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one's fundamental status as a member of society.
  • Social justice: Prisons should be instruments of justice, and as such their collective effect should be to promote society's aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources, and opportunities.

The committee did not conduct an exhaustive review of literature on the effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration, crime prevention strategies, or victim assistance programs.

In a supplementary statement to the report, one committee member questioned some of the report's conclusions regarding the effect of incarceration rates on crime prevention and underlying causes of high incarceration rates. However, he concurred with the report's recommendations, which he noted are important and ripe for consideration by the public and policymakers.

Explore further: Incarceration has no effect on nonresident fathers' parenting

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User comments : 16

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Ducklet
1 / 5 (3) Apr 30, 2014
How has crime rate changed in the last four decades? If incarceration time has no impact on recidivism, then it stands to reason that someone who spends more of their life in prison will have fewer opportunities to commit crimes. Hence, fewer crimes are committed. The statistics over the same time period clearly show a correlation between warehousing criminals and reduced crime.
Maggnus
4 / 5 (8) Apr 30, 2014
The statistics over the same time period clearly show a correlation between warehousing criminals and reduced crime.
Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc. There is no evidence of correlation beyond coincidence. A fallacious argument.
antialias_physorg
4.2 / 5 (5) Apr 30, 2014
"We are concerned that the United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,"

Prisons in the Us are big business. No way anyone is going to touch that. The kickback into the 'justice' system run too deep. No law or guideline that would reduce sentences would ever be effective (or pass for that matter).
RichTheEngineer
1.2 / 5 (5) Apr 30, 2014
I agree, let's reduce incarceration rate; instead of putting criminals in prison, let's elect them to Congress and as President instead. Wait, don't we already do that?

Hell with it, do what China, Russia, and all those other "civilized" nation-states do, just execute criminals. Cheaper, especially if you cut out those bothersome appeals.
charlimopps
4.7 / 5 (3) Apr 30, 2014
How has crime rate changed in the last four decades? If incarceration time has no impact on recidivism, then it stands to reason that someone who spends more of their life in prison will have fewer opportunities to commit crimes. Hence, fewer crimes are committed. The statistics over the same time period clearly show a correlation between warehousing criminals and reduced crime.


We can't afford to keep 1% of the population in prison. It's bankrupting us. We need to find another way.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) Apr 30, 2014
In related news

"The horrifyingly botched execution on Tuesday in Oklahoma... Clayton D. Lockett, woke during the lethal injection, called out, writhed in pain, and died of a heart attack after officials tried to halt the execution..." etc.

-Perhaps beheading is actually the more humane form of execution. This in conjunction with

"A captive bolt pistol (also variously known as a cattle gun, stunbolt gun, bolt gun, or stunner) is a device used for stunning animals prior to slaughter."

-could be the winning combination for all such raping murdering dogs awaiting execution.
We need to find another way
Technology will soon offer alternatives to tracking and monitoring people who are a risk to society. It will also provide ways of determining guilt without doubt; so much so that many cases can be decided outside the courtroom.

Yeah the justice system is big business but the penal system itself is a danger to society. Monitoring could be just as lucrative and much more sanitary.
Returners
1 / 5 (3) Apr 30, 2014
We can't afford to keep 1% of the population in prison. It's bankrupting us. We need to find another way.


There are lots of problems in our criminal justice system: idiot judges throwing out cases where a suspected murderer is clearly guilty, on grounds such as "too rich to know right from wrong". You're damn right. That million dollars under the table makes him too rich to know right from wrong. Seriously, if that was a judges ruling, they should take that judge and put them on trial for being an accomplice to murder.

So what is the plan? Let all the gateway drug users, date rapers, vagrants and vandals and people who assault others for no reason (it happens), let them all go free after a few weeks/months? Maybe garnish their wages until they pay back the full cost of damages plus the full cost to the legal/penal system?

In the Bible if someone's animal did damage to another persons' property they owed 4 fold, and if they falsely accused someone, they sentenced them instead.
Returners
2.3 / 5 (4) Apr 30, 2014
I do think there needs to be a constitutional amendment in the U.S. protecting the rights and wellbeing of people wrongfully convicted.

You are not required to prove innocence, however, in cases where a person has been convicted and INNOCENCE is later proven, the government and jurisdiction should owe that person:

1, Lost wages equal to the mean income for every year or part of year for wrongful incarceration.

2, Additional amounts for "emotional trauma" due to exposure to forced real criminals, including violence and potential jail rapes, etc.

Aside from being flat out murdered or maimed by your government, or having your wife raped by the governor, there is much worse that can happen besides being wrongfully convicted and wrongfully sentenced for a crime, yet it happens all the time in the U.S. and the people, in a couple cases, PROVE their innocence, but get nothing from the government for the injuries they caused to that poor person.
alfie_null
3 / 5 (2) May 01, 2014
Crime ought to be ranked based on how much harm is done to society. The focus of imprisonment (and alternative measures) should be on the most cost effective way to prevent future damage from any given type of crime.

I don't care about vengeance, but neither do I have great expectations that once a person is incarcerated, he can be salvaged. It happens, but recidivism is a huge problem, and I'm dubious there's much that can be done.
Osiris1
1 / 5 (1) May 01, 2014
What next theory....public execution of jaywalkers by heavy machine gun firing squad in colliseums, selling tickets....rich can afford front row seats where they can see the blood spray. Is vengeance all we want? No justice? No mercy? Our prison policy IS bankupting us, and exposing us to dangerous virulent pathogens spreading secretly and broadly in our society at all levels. Education is no bar to stupidity as witness the public health nurse supervisor that sued a basketball pro for giving her AIDS; in the trial it came out that she willfully went to the sack with him, secretly in expectation of suing him as a 'deep pocket'.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) May 01, 2014
In the Bible if someone's animal did damage to another persons' property they owed 4 fold, and if they falsely accused someone, they sentenced them instead
The bible requires the stoning of insolent children and wayward women. The bible condones slavery and instructs you on the proper way of selling your daughter. The bible tells it's chosen people that unbelievers are evil, and encourages the persecution, stoning, conquest, slaughter and rape of said unbelievers.

And throughout the ages believers have faithfully carried out these instructions. It continues today.

"1 The fool says in his heart,
"There is no God.
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good." Psm14

-Never has a more wicked book been written.
I do think there needs to be a constitutional amendment in the U.S. protecting the rights and wellbeing of people wrongfully convicted
"Kill them all. For The Lord knows his own." -Arnaud Amalric, abbot, inquisitor
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) May 01, 2014
I'm dubious there's much that can be done.
The brain defects and damage that create the psychopath and sociopath cannot be undone. This damage occurs mainly in the womb and CAN be prevented by requiring at-risk expectant mothers to be remotely monitored throughout their pregnancy for any traces of drugs, tobacco, alcohol, toxins, trauma, or malnutrition throughout their pregnancy.

And AS SOON AS these conditions are detected the mother can be incarcerated in a clinic until she gives birth. And at-risk children can be monitored for these same conditions until they reach adulthood.

Technology will soon make this possible. It goes hand in hand with the continued monitoring of criminals. It will prevent crime by taking measures to ensure that as many people a possible will be born without the sort of damage and disease which would otherwise ruin their lives and burden society.
Modernmystic
4 / 5 (1) May 01, 2014
I think we need to legalize drugs and give amnesty to all currently in prison for such offenses. Then we go a long way to solving the problem. Violent offenders should have no changes, or get life sentences if they show clearly that they can't change.
Anda
1 / 5 (1) May 03, 2014
Of incarceration, pollution, denialism, creationism, enhalted patriotism...

From a western european point of view you are ... f*****...
TheGhostofOtto1923
3 / 5 (2) May 04, 2014
Of incarceration, pollution, denialism, creationism, enhalted patriotism...

From a western european point of view you are ... f*****...
But who cares what euros think? You all are too steeped in political propaganda to have objective opinions on anything.

IOW you're used to being told what to think and what to do. Those who could not live that way fled to the colonies long ago, leaving the subservient to breed. Hell half the countries there still have functional monarchies.

And there's a difference between subjects and citizens you know?
Captain Stumpy
3 / 5 (2) May 04, 2014
I think we need to legalize drugs and give amnesty to all currently in prison for such offenses
@Modernmystic
for drugs like marijuanna, this is not a bad idea, but for other drugs, I disagree. The use should also factor in. for instance: self use in privacy should be allowed, as long as there was no threat to other individuals, but use in public which directly threatened another (by driving, fighting, etc) should be punnished
certain other "feel good" laws should also be removed from the books, but this is my opinion.
Prisons in the Us are big business
@antialias_physorg
this is true, but some states prision system is self supporting. in certain states prisoners routinely do work from construction and farming to manufacturing objects for sale to support the prison system. Their "perks" are being outside, busy, and they get paid a small wage that can be spent in the prison commisary

also: prisons are not geared for rehabilitation