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New Report Examines Growth of Incarceration

Rising incarceration numbers and stagnant crime rates mean the time for comprehensive reform is now.

(Crossposted at Huffington Post)

The United States is well past the point where the immense number of people in prison – by a significant margin the largest in the world – can be justified by social benefits. That is the conclusion of a committee of preeminent criminal justice experts, social scientists, and historians convened by the National Research Council, which last week released its comprehensive study of America’s overgrown criminal justice system. The committee’s findings and recommendations focus on what drove the increase in the use of imprisonment as punishment, how it affected individuals, families, communities, and society at large, and whether this shift in policy produced significant benefits or whether a major policy change is needed to arrest the growth of incarceration in America.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences confirms what many researchers, criminal justice experts and advocates have argued for years: incarceration has dramatically increased without yielding large crime-reduction benefits for the country. Incarceration rates in the U.S. have more than quadrupled in the past four decades. There are now 2.2 million people behind bars, a rate of nearly 1 out of 100 U.S. adults, placing the U.S. far outside the experience of other western democracies. Considered together with these glaring statistics, the commission’s conclusions will further fuel calls to re-examine policies that rely on incarceration as the preferred method of combating crime.

The Committee finds high incarceration rates came about not because of an increase in crime, but because of policy choices. As some of the committee members noted at the report’s release last week, incarceration has left a huge footprint on our society with little evidence of its effectiveness.

The report provides a thorough context of the enactment and implementation of criminal justice policies during the social, political, and economic changes confronting the United States beginning in the 1960s. It also examines the dramatic evolution of America’s sentencing policies, which from mid-1980s through the mid-1990s became focused on punishing drug and violent crimes more harshly. This included an unprecedented piling on of mandatory minimum sentences, three-strike provisions requiring 25 year sentences for those convicted of certain crimes, and state truth-in-sentencing laws requiring individuals to serve at least 85 percent of their original sentence. The authors mark the current sentencing era, which began in the mid 1990s, as a period of drift, with state legislatures repealing some of the harsh sentencing laws of the past but without the comprehensive reform that could truly rectify the problems of overly punitive sentencing policies.

Scientific evidence is the report’s core. But, as the authors say, “empirical evidence by itself cannot point the way to policy, yet an explicit and transparent expression of normative principles has been notably missing” in criminal justice policy.

In that vein, the report lays out four guiding principles, which do a great job of framing why the current state of our criminal justice system falls so far short of American ideals. Those goals are: proportionality of sentences to the seriousness of the crime committed; parsimony, meaning that punishment should not exceed the minimum need to achieve its purpose; citizenship, or the sanctity of an individual’s fundamental status as a member of society; and social justice, the idea that “as public institutions in a democracy, prisons should promote the general well-being of all members of society.”

This is an important call on the nation to take a collective breath and thoughtfully begin to chart a new course while keeping in mind the values of fairness, equality, and the real purpose of punishment. The National Academy of Sciences’ report, along with a wealth of new research emerging on criminal justice policy, will have the greatest possible impact if it can convince policymakers to make thoughtful changes to how we dispense justice in America. Whether through a 'National Commission on Mass Incarceration,' like the Brennan Center proposed last month, or simply by hastening the growing consensus on left and right, now is the time for comprehensive reform.

(Photo: Flickr)