A Response to the Decline of the Prison Population

In response to a New York Times article characterizing a drop in prison population as a "shift away from mass imprisonment," Inimai Chettiar responds with the facts about the current state of mass incarceration in America.

August 3, 2013

In response to a New York Times article in which the author characterized a drop in the prison population as a "shift away from mass imprisonment," Inimai Chettiar responded with the following letter to the editor


To the Editor:

You quote a criminologist as saying, “This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration.” In fact, it’s premature to celebrate. The United States remains the world’s largest jailer, with 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. Without a national shift away from “tough on crime” policies, it will maintain that title.

While the positive results of a few state reforms are heartening, the data do not reflect a systemic movement to decrease unnecessary incarceration permanently. Just three states — California, Texas and North Carolina — accounted for 84 percent of the 2 percent decline in the national prison population, while federal prison populations continued to grow.

Policy makers nationwide should institute proven, effective reforms — reclassifying petty offenses, reducing harsh sentences and using incarceration as a last resort — to create a meaningful and permanent change to criminal justice policy and end the country’s overreliance on prisons.

INIMAI CHETTIAR
New York, July 30, 2013

The writer is director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law.