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Fall 2014 Vol. 14 Number 1

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The Rising Rate of Incarceration
in the United States

Exploring the Causes and Consequences

After decades of stability, the United States' incarceration rate more than quadrupled in the past 40 years, increasing the country's penal population to 2.2 million adults, the largest in the world. Currently, nearly 1 out of 100 American adults is in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.

The rise in state and federal prison populations occurred in main part because of policy decisions such as mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeat offenses, and intensified criminalization of drug-related activity. Stricter sentencing policies were formed initially during a period of rising crime and social change; however, over the four decades when incarceration rates rose steadily, crime rates fluctuated.

According to a recent National Research Council report, this unprecedented and internationally unique rise in incarceration is not serving the country well. Given the minimal impact of long prison sentences on crime prevention and the negative social consequences and considerable fiscal burden of high incarceration rates, the U.S. should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce imprisonment rates, the report recommends. Specifically, federal and state policymakers should re-examine policies requiring mandatory and long sentences, as well as take steps to improve prison conditions and to reduce unnecessary hardship and harm to the families and communities of those incarcerated. In addition, policymakers should reconsider drug crime policy, in view of the apparently low effectiveness of a heightened enforcement strategy that resulted in a tenfold increase in the incarceration rate for drug offenses from 1980 to 2010 -- twice the rate for other crimes.

The committee that wrote the report evaluated scientific evidence on the effects of high incarceration rates on public safety and U.S. society, as well as their effects on those in prison, their families, and the communities from which prisoners originate and to which they return. It found that the current rate of imprisonment comes at a considerable cost. Allocations for corrections have outpaced budget increases for nearly all other key government services, including education, transportation, and public assistance.

People who live in poor and minority communities have always had substantially higher rates of prison admission and return than other groups. Consequently, the report says, the effects of harsh penal policies in the past 40 years have been concentrated in severely disadvantaged communities and have fallen most heavily on blacks and Hispanics. Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic.

In addition, incarceration correlates with negative social and economic outcomes for former prisoners and their families, as men with a criminal record often experience reduced earnings and employment after prison. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with incarcerated fathers increased from about 350,000 to 2.1 million -- about 3 percent of all U.S. children. Further, housing insecurity and behavioral problems in children are hardships strongly related to fathers' incarceration.

The committee stressed that future policy decisions regarding incarceration should not only be based on empirical evidence but also should be guided by four principles with deep roots in jurisprudence and social policy. The principles state that criminal offenses should be sentenced in proportion to their seriousness, the period of confinement should be sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing policy, the conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one's fundamental status as a member of society, and prisons should be instruments of justice and as such their collective effect should be to promote society's aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources, and opportunities.

-- Dana Korsen

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2014, 464 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-29801-8; available from National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $74.95 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study committee was chaired by Jeremy Travis, president, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City. The study was funded by the National Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

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