HIGH INCARCERATION RATE IN US IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

ABSTRACT: The get tough on crime policies of the last 30 – 40 years have been counterproductive. They have swelled our prison population from less than 200,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,500,000 today. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world and 5 times the world average.

This is costing us a fortune – we spend over $80 billion per year on prisons. There is no evidence that incarcerating more people leads to reduced crime. This mass incarceration is also costing us a fortune in lost human and social capital. Perhaps worst of all, our criminal justice system is blatantly racist. Some people compare today’s criminal justice system to the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s and early 1900s that made blacks second class citizens.

To address the problems of over incarceration we need to: 1) End mandatory minimum sentences, 2) Stop discriminatory police and prosecutorial practices, 3) Stop building prisons and start closing some, and 4) Ban the box that requires job applicants to disclose if they have a criminal record.

The mass incarceration the US has engaged in over the last 30 years is wrong, ineffective, inefficient, and racist. Instead of closing doors on people, we need to open opportunities through jobs and education, as well as mental health services and drug treatment when needed.

FULL POST: The get tough on crime policies of the last 30 – 40 years have been counterproductive. These policies, such as mandatory sentences and 3-strikes-you’re-out laws, have swelled our prison population from less than 200,000 in the mid-1970s to 2,500,000 today – 12 times as many inmates. One out of every 100 adults in the US is in prison. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world and 5 times the world average. The US has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners.

This is costing us a fortune – we spend over $80 billion per year on prisons. This has increased substantially in the last 30 years and has continued to increase despite falling crime rates for the last 20 years. State governments are spending more on prisons than on higher education. The federal government spends 6 times as much on prisons as on education. [1]

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that incarcerating more people leads to reduced crime. Crime rates, especially violent crime rates, are not linked to incarceration rates. Crime rates in states with higher incarceration rates, sometimes twice as high, do not have lower crime rates. This is because the increased incarceration is largely for non-violent, victimless crimes such as illegal drug possession.

This mass incarceration is also costing us a fortune in lost human and social capital. Many young men, particularly young black men, are sent to prison when what they really need is education and job skills, or mental health services and drug treatment. And after they have served their time, their criminal record often prevents them from getting a job or a student loan, and from voting. This loss of potentially productive human capital is bad for our economy. Furthermore, the social exclusion and high rates of incarceration in some communities, including of fathers with children, result in a huge loss of social capital that exacerbates and perpetuates disadvantage in these neighborhoods.

Perhaps worst of all, our criminal justice system is blatantly racist. People of color are more likely to be stopped by police, and are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sent to jail than whites. For example, although all races and ethnic groups use illegal drugs at basically the same rate, far more people of color are arrested, convicted, and sent to prison for drug offenses than are whites. Some people, notably Michelle Alexander, compare today’s criminal justice system to the Jim Crow laws of the late 1800s and early 1900s that made blacks second class citizens. (She has a powerful TED talk on this topic entitled The future of race in America at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ6H-Mz6hgw. She has also written a book entitled The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.)

To address the problems of over incarceration we need to:

  • End mandatory minimum sentences as inflexible, ineffective, and unfair. There are much more effective and efficient alternatives to incarceration for non-violent crimes.
  • Stop discriminatory police and prosecutorial practices.
  • Stop building prisons and start closing some, so we can put the money spent on them to more productive uses, such as education, job training, drug treatment, and mental health services.
  • Ban the box that requires job applicants to check a box to disclose if they have a criminal record. Many employers have already done this. Given the breadth of mass incarceration for minor offenses, it is not a meaningful screen for many jobs.

The mass incarceration the US has engaged in over the last 30 years is wrong, ineffective, inefficient, and racist. It harms our economy and our communities, wasting lots of money and human potential. It locks people out of society even after they have served their time. Instead of closing doors on people, we need to open opportunities through jobs and education, as well as mental health services and drug treatment when needed.

Ending mass incarceration is the tenth of Ten Ideas to Save the Economy: The Big Picture presented by Robert Reich and MoveOn.org. (You can watch the 3 minute video at: https://www.facebook.com/RBReich/videos/1034546579891271/.)

[1]       Mitchell, M., & Leachman, M. (2014). “Changing priorities: State criminal justice reforms and investments in education,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (http://www.cbpp.org//sites/default/files/atoms/files/10-28-14sfp.pdf)

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2 comments

  1. plantjustice · · Reply

    good one, john … this level of incarceration is lunacy!

    1. Thanks! It really is crazy. Thank goodness sanity seems to be starting to prevail!

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