Justice Update: Top Economists Join Criminal Justice Efforts, GOP Pushes for Reform

February 17, 2016

Top Economists Join Effort to End Mass Incarceration

Today, 10 renowned economists from across the political spectrum joined a new Brennan Center initiative to increase the salience of mass incarceration as an economic issue facing the country. 

The bipartisan group includes Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, and former Chief Economist for President George W. Bush, Douglas Holtz-Eakin. The group will assist the Brennan Center in its ongoing efforts to provide complete analysis on how mass incarceration affects the country’s economy and economic inequality. 

Formation of the Brennan Center Economic Advisory Board comes amid growing evidence that mass incarceration has significant economic consequences. For instance, not only does the criminal justice system cost taxpayers $260 billion annually, according to a Brennan Center analysis, it also contributes to as much as 20 percent of the poverty rate in America.  

“The fiscal costs of mass incarceration are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “Over-incarceration’s larger effect on human capital, the economy, and inequality haven’t been fully quantified. This initiative, with guidance from the Board, seeks to do that.”

Read the press release and click here to see a full list of members.

GOP Continues Push for Sentencing Reform

A bipartisan group of lawmakers continue to push for criminal justice reform, despite opposition from a handful of conservative senators. Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are holding up the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 even though the bill “represents remarkable progress in what is often a harsh, oversimplified debate about crime and punishment in America,” according to a New York Times editorial.   

Law enforcement leaders held a Capitol Hill briefing with Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) to discuss the bill. The group argued the legislation would safely reduce the prison population and allow law enforcement to concentrate on the most violent criminals. Statements to the contrary, Lee said, are not “wedded to the facts.” He added that some of the bill’s opponents “have not read it.”

According to a new poll by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project, public opinion is on the side of reformers. It found that 61 percent of voters believe drug offenders are “taking up too much space in our federal prison system,” and 77 percent would restore judicial discretion in sentencing in all cases. Overall, the poll found Americans are “ready and willing” to make reforms that “would reduce a federal prison population they see as too large, too expensive, and too often incarcerating the wrong people.”    

2016 Candidates Continue to Address Criminal Justice

Criminal justice reform continues to be featured in the 2016 presidential race. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Hillary Clinton discussed the issue during a debate in Milwaukee, Wisc. Sanders called mass incarceration “one of the great tragedies in our country today.” Clinton said she agreed with her rival, stating there’s “work to do.” Both candidates’ support of criminal justice reform is “similar to that of many mainstream politicians on both sides,” Inimai Chettiar told Yahoo News.

Many Republican candidates have also spoken out about reform, both on the campaign trail and in the Brennan Center’s Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, which got candidates on-the-record on criminal justice. Ted “Cruz called for ‘carefully calibrated’ changes to sentencing requirements,” The Root noted in a Meet the Candidates series. Marco Rubio, meanwhile, acknowledges “the growing bipartisan consensus about criminal-justice reform,” but “laments that ‘too often that conversation starts and ends with drug policy.’”

Research Roundup

  • A study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice examined crime data in 81 large American cities in the 12 months before and after August 2014, when a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed teenager Michael Brown. No evidence was found to support the claim that overall violent or property crime increased after Ferguson, although homicide rates did rise in a few cities.
  • The latest report by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research finds that the United States no longer has the world’s highest incarceration rate. The East African nation of Seychelles now has the highest incarceration rate, with 799 jail or prison inmates per 100,000 compared to the United States’ 698 inmates per 100,000 residents.
  • A forthcoming paper in Criminology and Public Policy examined the aftermath of California’s Realignment Act, which reduced the population of the state’s prisons and jails, on crime rates in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The study found no effect on violent or property crime in these three years.  There were small increases in specific property crimes in 2012, but rates returned to pre-Realignment levels by 2014.