The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S.

Jeremy Travis, J.D. served as chair of the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration. This interdisciplinary committee, including a diverse range of expertise and perspectives, undertook an objective independent review of the research on the rates of incarceration in the U.S. to understand the impact of current incarceration rates, identify the problems associated with it, and propose evidence-based solutions.

Over the past 40 years, the U.S. has become increasingly reliant on incarceration as the major instrument for crime control. Using the best evidence and rigorous analysis, the Committee set out to understand  whether this reliance on incarceration has been effective for individuals, families, communities and society and if not, to understand the ways to address the potentially misplaced dependence on incarceration.

 U.S. Incarceration Rate, 1925–2012

 

 Incarceration in U.S. and Europe, 2012–2013

 

What changes in American society and public policy drove the rise in incarceration?

Mr. Travis reported the Committee’s finding, noting that the growth in incarceration rates in the the nation over the past 40 years is historically unprecedented and internationally unique. The Committee observed that the growth in incarceration was fueled by increasing crime rates from the early 1960s to the early 1980s, the decline in urban manufacturing, and problems of drugs and violence concentrated in poor and racially segregated inner-city neighborhoods. These social changes occurred during a period of civil rights activism, urban disorder, heightened public concern and tough-on-crime rhetoric from political leaders fostered a punitive criminal justice environment. This situation led to changes in sentencing and law enforcement, including mandatory sentencing guidelines and expanded mandatory prison terms. Drug arrest rates increased significantly and drug crimes were sentenced more harshly. In the 1990s longer penal sentences were set, particularly for violent crimes and repeat offenders.

What consequences have these changes had for crime rates?

Tough mandatory jail terms increased incarceration and the focus on poor and racially segregated inner-city neighborhoods contributed to growing racial disparity in prison populations. High rates of incarceration have had strong negative impacts on communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by imprisonment policies. In 2010, the imprisonment rate for blacks was 4.6 times that for whites. This greatly exceeds racial differences for many other common social indicators and undermines the sense of fairness that American citizens assume to be at the core of our justice system.

 Imprisonment Risk Extraordinary for
Young Less Educated Black Men

 

The Committee’s study shows that while the U.S. imprisonment rate has more than quadrupled, there is little evidence to suggest that this has resulted in crime reduction. The data indicate that increasing already long sentences does not appear to prevent most people from committing crimes. In fact, the experience of incarceration may sometimes foster re-offending. In short, adding incarceration time is not effective in preventing crime or increasing public safety.

 

What effects does incarceration have on those in confinement; on their families and children; on the neighborhoods and communities from which they come and to which they return; and on the economy, politics, structure, and culture of American society?

The policy decisions to rely on incarceration as a dterrent to crime have broad societal consequences--from the increases in corrections spending to negative economic and developmental outcomes for children, families, and communities.

What we have now is a justice system that is ineffective. Many people who enter prison have physical and mental health problems that go unaddressed. The data suggest  they emerge from jail in worse shape than when they entered. Men and women released from prison experience low wages and high unemployment, making it unlikely that they will rejoin their families or communities and be able to make a contribution to society. Instead, these people are caught in a system that functions like an exceptionally difficult maze, where every door leads into prison and few doors lead out. The result is a system that is ineffective — it is not deterring crime, and it is creating a host of other problems for our society.

The U.S. has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by any potential benefits. According to the best available evidence, the crime reduction effect of high rates of incarceration is small, while the negative social and economic consequences are far-reaching.

What are the implications for public policy?

The Committee articulated four guiding principles of jurisprudence and good governance:

1. Sentences should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime.

2. Punishment should not exceed the minimum needed to achieve its legitimate purpose.

3. 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.

4. As public institutions in a democracy, prisons should promote the general well-being of all members of society.

Each of these principles recognizes that the forcible deprivation of liberty through incarceration is an awesome state power. This power demands the periodic, systematic evaluation of prison policy decisions, since they affect both our criminal justice system and our society more generally. “We have to ensure that the system is achieving the goals we set for it as a society. Our report suggests that we need to think about alternatives to incarceration and multiple ways out of the justice system if we are to create a safer and fairer society,” Mr. Travis observed.

The Committee’s recommendations:

Sentencing Policy: Re-examining policies for mandatory minimum jail terms, long sentences and enforcement of drug laws

Prison Policy: Improving the conditions of incarceration as well as reducing the harm to the families and communities

Social Policy: Assessing community needs for housing, treatment and employment that may increase with declining incarceration

Mr. Travis noted that policies need to be systematically reconsidered and modified. “We need to develop a broader set of tools to allow us to keep some people out of the system altogether and to help others to exit in ways that more successfully reincorporate them into communities,” he indicated. “Policymakers should also take steps to improve the experiences of incarcerated men and women such that they can return to their families and communities and rejoin society in productive capacities.”

Today We Know More

“We know more about better policing methods,” indicates Mr. Travis. ”The evidence shows that it is more effective in deterring crime to flood hotspots with police as needed. Focused deterrence also is effective, such as working directly with gangs to build relationships so that gang leaders lead the gang to desist from crime”. With “Broken windows” policing, police focus  on less serious crimes in neighborhoods that have not yet been overtaken by serious crime. They will help residents themselves take control of their neighborhood and prevent serious crime from infiltrating.

Today, there is a wide range of investment options for deterring crime. The current crime rate is lower because we know more about effectively ensuring safety.

The Challenge of the Moment

“Now is the time for legislators to focus on fixing incarceration,” the speaker noted “It takes courage and a determined state leader to say, ‘Enough is enough! Crime has never been lower. We don’t need so many people in prison. We need to put the state on a different path. We are spending too much money and doing too much harm to prisoners’ families, children and society with our current policies. We need to slow the process and find new answers, not just put more people in prison.”

Discussion

Tom Finneran: The nation’s crime rate is at its lowest since 1968. People assume this is because so many people are in jail. In the face of this belief, how can we persuade people that reducing prison populations is a good idea?

Mr. Travis: This is a messaging challenge. People thinks there’s a connection between lots of prisoners and a low crime rate. But the evidence shows that we don’t need so many individuals in prison to keep crime rates low. The reality is that we have a lot of aging prisoners, we’re keeping old people in prison, and their medical costs are soaring. Why?

In California, citizens put Proposition 47 on the ballot to change sentencing laws, and it passed. Proponents saw it as an investment choice – they’d rather have money for higher education than pay for geriatric prisoners. Changing sentencing provisions makes a big difference in jail populations and costs.

Sen. John Cullerton (IL): We have the lowest crime rate since 1963, but the media do not report this; instead, they highlight murders, and this makes the public clamor for increased penalties. How can we change course given the media and public perception?

Mr. Travis: In recent surveys, 80% of respondents thought the crime rate was up, while it is actually the lowest since the 1960s. We need to educate people that providing better alternatives for people coming out of prison, such as better supervision after release, has been shown to reduce recidivism.

Sen. Martin Looney (CT): Mandatory minimum sentences and high bonds for the pretrial detention population pushed Connecticut’s prison population up from 4,000 in 1960 to 18,000 in 2010. We had to do something to reduce this. The public accepted the decision to decriminalize marijuana, but we kept tough sentencing on cocaine and heroin offenses.

Mr. Travis: How tough do we have to be on heroin and cocaine users? We doubled down on prison as a response, but there are other, more effective options to bring about public safety. Jail terms are the most expensive and the least effective options.

Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed (RI): We deinstitutionalized the mentally ill during the last 40 years, and they ended up in jails. Furthermore, the high rate of recidivism is also a problem. There is not enough emphasis on re-education and treatment during incarceration and on support for reintegration into the community after release.

Mr. Travis: We ramped up prisons and cut back programming. Jails have become mental institutions. Almost 40% of prisoners at New York City’s Rikers Island Prison are mentally ill and need treatment rather than incarceration. The issue is that 90% of prisoners come home without education or reading skills. We have done nothing to prepare them to return home as contributing citizens, and we pay a price in crime, lost productivity, mortality, drugs and gang violence. Communities are trying to reintegrate released prisoners. We have to manage the re-entry process more effectively.

Other Criminal & Social Justice System articles.

 

Jeremy Travis, J.D.
President
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
City University of New York

 

Tough mandatory jail terms and the focus on poor and racially segregated inner-city neighborhoods contributed to growing racial disparity in prison populations. High rates of incarceration have had strong negative impacts on communities of color. In 2010, the imprisonment rate for blacks was 4.6 times that for whites.

 

While the U.S. imprisonment rate has more than quadrupled, there is little evidence to suggest that this has resulted in crime reduction; adding incarceration time  is not effective in preventing crime or increasing public safety.

 

The U.S. has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by any potential benefits. According to the best available evidence, the crime reduction effect of high rates of incarceration is small, while the negative social and economic consequences are far-reaching.

 

The Committee’s recommendations:

• Sentencing Policy:
Re-examining policies for mandatory minimum jail terms, long sentences and enforcement of drug laws

• Prison Policy: Improving the conditions of incarceration as well as reducing the harm to the families and communities

• Social Policy: Assessing community needs for housing, treatment and employment that may increase with declining incarceration

 

“Crime has never been lower. We don’t need so many people in prison. We need to put the state on a different path.”

– Mr. Travis

Sen. John Cullerton

Sen. Martin Looney

Sen. Teresa Paiva Weed

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