"We need to reduce the number of people that are going to prison and be methodical about reserving prison beds and allocating resources for the most serious and violent offenders, and figure out alternative sanctions for other offenders," Page says.
According to Page, the number of people incarcerated grew for various reasons. More people have been given prison sentences instead of alternative sanctions such as probation, particularly for drug offenses. In addition, sentences have become longer, with mandatory minimum sentences and the implementation of "truth-in-sentencing"--which reduces the amount of time that can be deducted from a sentence for good behavior (making it more "true" to the original sentence).
Last year, roughly 32 percent of new admissions to Minnesota prisons were for people who violated the terms of their probation or parole, known as "technical violators," [Joshua Page, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota] says. (This could be for reasons like failing a drug test or not finding work.) "And then if you add the 21.6 percent that are for drug offenses, more than half of Minnesota's prison population are for [technical] violators and drugs." Page and the other authors [of a new report] recommend de-criminalizing victimless crimes, meaning people would not receive any criminal punishment for drug use, prostitution, and the like. They also suggest that states use alternative sanctions for some offenders who currently serve prison sentences--for instance, selective property offenders. Options might include paying restitution or performing community service, whether it's picking up trash on the side of the road or serving food at a homeless shelter.
UNLOCKING AMERICA President Bush was right. A prison sentence for Lewis "Scooter" Libby was excessive- so too was the long three year probation term. But while he was at it, President Bush should have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of Americans who each year have also received prison sentences for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to our society. In the United States, every year since 1970, when only 196,429 persons were in state and federal prisons, the prison population has grown. Today there are over 1.5 million in state and federal prisons. Another 750,000 are in the nation's jails. The growth has been constant- in years of rising crime and falling crime, in good economic times and bad, during wartime and while we were at peace. A generation of growth has produced prison populations that are now eight times what they were in 1970. And there is no end to the growth under current policies.
The PEW Charitable Trust reports that under current sentencing policies the state and federal prison populations will grow by another 192,000 prisoners over the next five years. The incarceration rate will increase from 491 to 562 per 100,000 population. And the nation will have to spend an additional $27.5 billion in operational and construction costs over this fi ve-year period on top of the over $60 billion now being spent on corrections each year.
This generation-long growth of imprisonment has occurred not because of growing crime rates, but because of changes in sentencing policy that resulted in dramatic increases in the proportion of felony convictions resulting in prison sentences and in the length-of-stay in prison that those sentences required. . . .
Prisons are self-fueling systems. About two-thirds of the 650,000 prison admissions are persons who have failed probation or parole - approximately half of these people have been sent to prison for technical violations. Having served their sentences, roughly 650,000 people are released each year having served an average of 2-3 years. About 40% will ultimately be sent back to prison as "recidivists"- in many states, for petty drug and property crimes or violations of parole requirements that do not even constitute crimes. This high rate of recidivism is, in part, a result of a range of policies that increase surveillance over people released from prison, impose obstacles to their reentry into society, and eliminate support systems that ease their transition from prison to the streets.
Prison policy has exacerbated the festering national problem of social and racial inequality. Incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos are now more than six times higher than for whites; 60% of America's prison population is either African-American or Latino. A shocking eight percent of black men of working age are now behind bars, and 21% of those between the ages of 25 and 44 have served a sentence at some point in their lives. At current rates, one-third of all black males, one-sixth of Latino males, and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives. Incarceration rates this high are a national tragedy.2 Women now represent the fastest growing group of incarcerated persons. In 2001, they were more than three times as likely to end up in prison as in 1974, largely due to their low-level involvement in drug-related activity and the deeply punitive sentencing policies aimed at drugs. The massive incarceration of young males from mostly poor- and working-class neighborhoods- and the taking of women from their families and jobs- has crippled their potential for forming healthy families and achieving economic gains. The authors of this report have spent their careers studying crime and punishment. We are convinced that we need a different strategy. Our contemporary laws. . .
By far the major reason for the increase in prison populations at least since 1990 has been longer lengths of imprisonment. The adoption of truth in sentencing provisions that require prisoners to serve most of their sentences in prison, a wide variety of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions that prevent judges from placing defendants on probation even when their involvement in the conduct that led to the conviction was minor, reductions in the amount of good time a prisoner can receive while imprisoned, and more conservative parole boards have significantly impacted the length of stay. For example, in a special study by the U.S. Department of Justice on truth in sentencing, between 1990 and 1997, the numbers of prison admissions increased by only 17% (from 460,739 to 540,748), while the prison population increased by 60% (from 689,577 to 1,100,850). . . .
Proponents of prison expansion have heralded this growth as a smashing success. But a large number of studies contradict that claim. Most scientific evidence suggests that there is little if any relationship between fluctuations in crime rates and incarceration rates. In many cases, crime rates have risen or declined independent of imprisonment rates. New York City, for example, has produced one of the nation's largest declines in crime in the nation while significantly reducing its jail and prison populations.Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts have also reduced their prison populations during the same time that crime rates were declining. A study of crime and incarceration rates from 1980 to 1991 in all 50 states and the District of Columbia shows that incarceration rates exploded during this period. The states that increased incarceration rates the least were just as likely to experience decreases in crime as those that increased them the most. . . Other studies reach similar conclusions, finding "no consistent relationship between incarceration rates and crime rates" and "no support for the ‘more prisoners, less crime' thesis." . . .
Incarceration may not have had much impact on crime, but it has had numerous unintended consequences, ranging from racial injustice and damage to families and children to worsening public health, civic disengagement, and even increases in crime. Bruce Western demonstrates the extraordinarily disparate impact of imprisonment on young black males compared to any other subgroup of society. For example, he shows that nearly one-half of all young black males who have not finished high school are behind bars, an incarceration rate that is six times higher than for white male dropouts. He then shows how incarceration damages the lifetime earnings, labor market participation, and marriage prospects for those who have been to prison and concludes that the U.S. prison system exacerbates and sustains racial inequality. British penologists Joseph Murray and David Farrington have analyzed data sets about child development from three nations and found that parental incarceration contributes to higher rates of delinquency, mental illness, and drug abuse, and reduces levels of school success and later employment among their children. . .
The failure of efforts to develop methods of accurately identifying the small number of offenders who do commit particularly horrendous crimes after serving their sentences fueled demands for longer sentences across the board. The logic of this argument was that if we can't single out the truly dangerous, we will assume that anyone with two or three convictions for a relatively wide range of offenses is a dangerous habitual criminal, and keep them all in prison for an extremely long time. On the basis of this reasoning, a number of states adopted mandatory sentencing, truth in sentencing and in some states "three strikes" laws, all of which extend prison sentences. These laws have done little to reduce crime. Few convicted persons have the requisite number of previous felony convictions to qualify for the enhanced sentences. This is because rates of return to serious crime on the part of those released from prison are not high. Just 1.2% of those who served time for homicide and were released in 1994 were rearrested for a new homicide within three years of release, and just 2.5% of released rapists were arrested for another rape. Sex offenders were less likely than non-sex-offenders to be rearrested for any offense. . . .
The U.S. Department of Justice conducted a major study of criminal involvement of prisoners who had been released in 1994. It found that only 5% of the 3 million arrests made in seven states between 1994 and 1997 were of recently released prisoners.47 California's "three strikes" law has had a number of evaluations; almost all found that it failed to reduce crime. These studies make clear that, while many people who are released from prison end up back behind bars, they are but a fraction of the overall crime problem. Lengthening their sentences, as a means of dealing with crime will at best have only marginal impact. . .
At the turn of the 19th century reformers realized that brutal prisons embitter prisoners rather than reform them. Yet this persistent faith that prisoners can be discouraged from returning to crime by subjecting them to harsh penalties, or that the population at large can be deterred more effectively with severe penalties than with milder ones, has never had empirical support. Decades of research on capital punishment have failed to produce compelling evidence that it prevents homicide more effectively than long prison sentences. Community penalties, it has been shown, are at least as effective in discouraging return to crime as institutional penalties. Rigorous prison conditions substantially increase recidivism. Evaluations show that boot camps and "scared straight" programs either have no effect on recidivism or increase it.