New Report Blasts U.S. Prison Policies

The United States incarcerates too many people, a new National Research Council report concludes. The study’s authors argue the U.S. needs to revise its current criminal justice policies — including sentencing laws and drug enforcement — to significantly cut prison rates and scale back what has become the world's most punitive culture.

In the last four decades, the rate of imprisonment in the United States has more than quadrupled, making its penal population of 2.2 million adults by far the largest in the world. The escalation does not reflect the fact the country has become considerably more criminal or violent over this time. Rather, it has more to do with politics.

“We found the reason for the increase was not associated with rising crime rates but policy choices,” said Avelardo Valdez, a professor in the USC School of Social Work who served on the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, which produced the 464-page report. “During the 1970s and 1980s across all branches and levels of government, criminal processing and sentencing expanded the use of incarceration for lesser offenses, increased time served, and drug crimes became more severely policed and punished.”

Mandatory minimums, three strikes laws, and the War on Drugs certainly bear a large portion of the blame, the report finds. Effectively, more people were going to jail, carrying with them longer sentences. And increasingly, they were serving almost all of that time. As a result, between 1980 and 2010, the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold.

“We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society.  A criminal justice system that makes less use of incarceration can better achieve its aims than a harsher, more punitive system. There are common-sense, practical steps we can take to move in this direction,” said committee chair Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Staggering Financial and Social Costs

Another major consequence of high rates of incarceration is the substantial fiscal burden on society, the report says. Spending on incarceration at the state level has outpaced budget increases for just about every other function of government, including education, transportation and welfare. Only spending on Medicaid at the state level has grown faster in the last 20 years.

The social costs have likewise been steep, particularly for minorities and the poor. In 2011, for example, about 60 percent of everyone behind bars was either black or Hispanic. Black men under the age of 35 with no high school diploma are now more likely to be in jail than working in the labor market, the report notes.

These disproportionate impacts extend to their children, too. As of 2009, 62 percent of black children under 17, whose parents had not completed high school, have had a parent in prison. The same was true for 17 percent of Hispanic children and 15 percent of white children.

Prisoners are more likely to come from poor communities—and return to them. The economic, social and political problems tied to incarceration tend to fall on these communities least capable of absorbing additional adversities. Among the challenges linked to incarceration are economic distress for families, housing insecurity and reliance on public assistance. Having an incarcerated father also increases a child's chances of having behavioral problems, bad grades and lower educational attainment.

“When ex-inmates return to their communities, their lives often continue to be characterized by violence, joblessness, substance abuse, family breakdown and neighborhood disadvantage,” said committee vice chair Bruce Western, professor of sociology, Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, and the director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “It can be challenging to draw strong causal conclusions from this research, but it’s clear that incarceration is now a facet of the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities. Prisons are part of a poverty trap, with many paths leading in, but few leading out.”

The study was supported by the National Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

To learn more, please download the report here: