Want to Reduce Crime? End Mass Incarceration

Want to Reduce Crime? End Mass Incarceration

We spend a lot of time talking about public safety in America today — and for good reason. With images of police in riot gear and some U.S. cities looking more and more like foreign war zones, much of the conversation has turned toward restoring trust among law enforcement and the communities they serve. Yet one solution to this issue is often overlooked: ending the practice of mass incarceration.  

Mass incarceration, a dominant strategy in criminal justice over the last few decades, has locked up millions of criminals, many of whom are non-violent or have minor offenses. The latest U.S. Department of Justice figures reveal that almost 7 million Americans are under some form of correctional supervision. Breaking down the numbers further, about 1 percent of adults are behind bars, with black men facing incarceration rates that are six times greater than those of white men. The question must be raised whether simply locking people up is smart policy.

First, let’s consider the direct costs. The U.S. corrections system is one of America’s biggest growth industries, with expenditures rising 3.6 times faster than inflation since 1982. The Vera Institute of Justice reports that the average cost of imprisonment is $31,286 per inmate per year. The tab adds up quickly considering that there are 2.2 million incarcerated Americans, most of whom are in state prisons.

America leads the world in incarceration in part because of bad incentives that encourage exporting too many defendants to prison. Some criminal justice scholars have argued that the most important cause of mass imprisonment is that judges and prosecutors too often believe that sending defendants to prison doesn’t cost anything. But the “freebie” of state prisons is hardly costless.

Next, let’s look at the indirect costs of imprisonment, which, while worse, can’t always be quantified. The “collateral consequences” of imprisonment include hardship for the prisoner and their families and communities. Household budgets and relationships are put under duress, while physical and emotional health suffers. America’s often expansive punishment system also significantly lessens employment prospects and civic engagement of ex-convicts. Numerous studies show that this can create a vicious cycle of recidivism.

However, costs alone aren’t the best way to judge a policy. We should also assess the benefits of high incarceration rates, which would presumably be enhanced public safety. Here we can turn to California, where prison populations were once bursting at the seams, with 175,000 inmates at the peak. In 2011, courts ruled that, because of prison overcrowding, the state must release approximately 33,000 convicts. Surely, one might think, criminal mayhem was unleashed on the state of California. 

In fact, there was no measurable increase in crime across the state; instead, crime rates actually decreased.  Research confirms that California’s property and crime rates remained near their historical lows even after downsizing its prison populations. As Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Jody Sundt reported, “there was no adverse effect on the overall safety of Californians.” She concluded that “large reductions in the size of the prison population can be made without endangering the overall safety of the public.” 

Although California’s hand was forced due to prison overcrowding, a case can be made for states to rely less on their prison systems. Proactive, preventative approaches that target key populations such as the mentally ill or those with substance-abuse problems can better prepare people to lead productive lives. Several cities have implemented such programs, saving money and bettering communities. The fight for public safety can be done more effectively and more cheaply. 

Downsizing our prisons is no panacea. And, of course, this approach will not work for all offenders and all communities. But research supports reassessing mass incarceration and carefully looking for alternative ways to address crime. What’s more, it’s a win-win for both sides of the political spectrum: conservatives can be happy about limiting the size and scope of the government, while progressives can cheer a fairer corrections system with less collateral damage for non-violent offenders. 

Mass incarceration imposes costs on the state, communities, and families. Today, we have an opportunity to explore new ways to reduce the number of people under lock-and-key with room and board at the taxpayers’ expense. And we have the opportunity to reconsider how to address root causes of crime, such as mental illnesses and lack of economic opportunities, and look for more effective and fairer alternatives to mass incarceration. 

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