A new report from the National Research Council concludes that the costs of the current incarceration rate – the world’s highest – outweigh the benefits and recommends sentencing reforms and other policy changes to reduce incarceration.
Four decades of mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeat offenses, and intensified criminalization of drug-related activity has made the United States the world’s top jailer. The United States incarcerates 2.2 million adults today, an unprecedented increase from 200,000 inmates in 1973. It has only 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly one-quarter of its prisoners and with nearly 1 in 100 American adults in prison or jail, the country’s incarceration rate is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in other democracies.
The National Research Council evaluated data about the consequences of mass incarceration and found that, while more incarceration and longer sentences has not been shown to significantly reduce crime, these policies have had negative consequences for imprisoned people, their families, and communities.
Mass incarceration has created a large population whose access to public benefits, occupations, and the ability to vote are limited by a criminal conviction. In 2000, 2.1 million American children had incarcerated fathers, elevating their risk for homelessness and poor developmental outcomes.
The negative impacts are most acute in poor minority neighborhoods. About 60 percent of incarcerated Americans are Black or Hispanic; in 2010, the imprisonment rate for Blacks was 4.6 times that for whites. Denying the right to vote to those with a criminal record weakens the power of low-income and minority communities, the report found.
The financial costs of mass imprisonment have more than quadrupled in the past 40 years. 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.
The United States has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits, the report concludes. “We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society,” said committee chair Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “A criminal justice 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 report calls for policymakers to reexamine long sentences, mandatory minimum sentences, and policies on enforcement of drug laws, and also to take steps to improve prison conditions and programs to foster successful reintegration of former prisoners when they are released.