The death penalty aside, incarceration is perhaps the most severe response to crime available to our justice system. It has immense social and economic ramifications for communities, and costs taxpayers more than $80 billion annually— about equivalent to the budget of the U.S. Department of Education. It’s also, undeniably, necessary to reduce crime. The question is, to what point?
For the past two decades, increased incarceration has been among the most popular tools in U.S. policymakers’ efforts to improve public safety. Because of mandatory sentencing penalties, three-strike laws, longer prison terms, the “war on drugs” and a host of other policies, there are nearly twice as many people incarcerated today as there were in 1990. With almost 2.3 million people behind bars, America’s incarceration rate is higher than that of any other country on the planet.
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