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Home Publications Op-Eds & Columns After a Three-Decade-Long Social Experiment in Incarceration, What Do We Have to Show For It?

After a Three-Decade-Long Social Experiment in Incarceration, What Do We Have to Show For It?

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John Schmitt and Kris Warner
Nieman Watchdog, June 8, 2010

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Between 1880 and 1980, incarceration rates in the United States fluctuated between about 100 and 200 per 100,000 residents. From 1980 on, however, incarceration rates skyrocketed, reaching 753 per 100,000 in the most recent data. We now have a larger share of our population behind bars than any other country in the world. Russia is second (629 per 100,000). Rwanda is third (593 per 100,000, including people being held in connection with the genocide there). The U.S. incarceration rate is seven times higher than the median (102) for other rich democracies; and more ten times higher than the rates in Scandanavia.

Over the last three decades, then, we have engaged in a massive social experiment in incarceration. By our calculations, in 2008, one of every 48 working-age men --2.1 percent-- is now in prison or jail. A much larger share of working-age men are ex-offenders and ex-prisoners and must carry the scars of those mistakes and experiences with them in the labor market for the rest of their lives. And the situation of young African-American and Latino men is far worse than these overall averages.

What do we have to show for this?

The rise in incarceration is not primarily a response to rising levels of crime. According to FBI data, the total number of violent crimes today is almost exactly what it was in 1980, and the number of property crimes is actually well below where it was in 1980. If the prison and jail population simply tracked the number of violent crimes, the incarceration rate today would be about 227 per 100,000, not the actual level of 753 per 100,000.

Incarceration rates are up, instead, because we sentence more and more offenders to jail and prison (rather than probation or parole) and we send them away for longer and longer. The rash of "get tough on crime" measures, which coincided with the "War on Drugs," including "three strikes" laws, "truth in sentencing" laws, and "mandatory minimums," have sent many offenders to jail or prison who would not have ended up there in the 100 years before 1980. Currently, non-violent offenders make up about 60 percent of the total incarcerated population; non-violent offenders on drug-related charges alone make up about one-fourth of the total. Thirty percent of new inmates each year are there solely for technical violations of probation and parole (missing a meeting with a probation or parole officer or losing a job, for example).

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and Representative William Delahunt (D-MA) have introduced legislation in the Senate and House to create a blue-ribbon "National Criminal Justice Commission" to carry out a comprehensive review of our criminal justice system. According to the proposed legislation, the commission would

  1. review all areas of federal and state criminal justice costs, practices, and policies;
  2. make specified findings relating to incarceration, prison administration, the impact of gang activity, drug policy, mental illness among prisoners and the role of the military in crime prevention;
  3. make recommendations for changes in policies and laws to address findings;
  4. consult with government and nongovernmental leaders, including state and local law enforcement officials; and
  5. submit a final report to Congress and the President and make such report public.

Here are a few lines of questioning we'd like to see the commissioners pursue:

Q. What does the statistical evidence say about the connection between stricter sentencing policies ("mandatory minimums," "three-strikes" laws, and "truth-in-sentencing" laws) and crime rates?

Q. What part of any effect of stricter sentencing on crime rates appears to be related to a deterrent effect and what part reflects a "warehousing" effect (getting potential offenders off the streets)? Is it cost-effective to keep older offenders behind bars?

Q. Do more and longer prison sentences --particularly for non-violent offenders-- potentially increase recidivism by reducing offenders ability to find and keep work after they are released?

Q. What portion of the rise in incarceration rates is due to drug-related offenses? Would decriminalizing or legalizing drugs lower crime and incarceration rates? What has been the experience of countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United Kingdom that have moved in this direction? Short of decriminalizing or legalizing drugs, what would be the effect of increasing the use of mandatory drug treatment, community sentencing (probation and parole), or much shorter sentences for drug-related offenses?

Q. What kinds of correctional programs work best at reducing recidivism? What role can greater access to education and training in jail and prison play? What kind of support and supervision of offenders on probation and parole are associated with lower recidivism rates?

Q. Given that about 30 percent of new entrants to jail and prison each year are offenders who commit technical violations of probation or parole, what scope is there for establishing intermediate, graduated punishments for technical violations?


John Schmitt and Kris Warner are co-authors (with Sarika Gupta) of "The High Budgetary Cost of Incarceration," released by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

 

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