The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 2, 2014

Mass incarceration: Why the costs outweigh the benefits

May 2, 2014

This week, the National Research Council released a landmark report exploring the causes and consequences of mass incarceration. The comprehensive work, authored by a committee of thinkers at the forefront of criminal justice and social science, concludes that the costs of the current rate of incarceration vastly outweigh the benefits. Among the detrimental effects are employment obstacles faced by returning prisoners, economic and other hardships on their children and families, the acute impact on minority and poor communities, and enormous financial expenditures from public coffers.

Concluding that the United States has “gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” the committee recommends a thoughtful reconsideration of sentencing policy, prison policy, and social policy to better align with the core values of justice and jurisprudence.

Indeed, this report comes at a time of unprecedented momentum surrounding criminal justice issues. State and federal leaders on both sides of the aisle are talking about and, in many places, passing substantial reform packages. It is critical that this larger justice reform conversation, which can frequently turn both political and emotional in nature, draw from the expanding base of data and research pointing the way to what works.

We know from our research on the federal prison population that a host of reforms will be needed to reduce the growth of the federal prison system. These include:

  • Reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences
  • Giving judges discretion in the application of mandatory minimums
  • Lowering the minimum share of a sentence an offender is required to serve

We’re also learning from the experiences of the states. For example, our assessment of how 17 states are implementing data-driven reforms through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative shows:

  • Using risk-assessment tools can help courts and judges evaluate the likelihood of recidivism.
  • Responding to some crimes and violations with community-based, not prison-based, treatment programs can improve recidivism outcomes.
  • Reducing sentence lengths, expanding parole eligibility, and limiting revocations can reduce unnecessary spending on incarceration.

Statehouses across the country are already coming to the realization that prison is costly, harmful, and comes at the expense of other fiscal priorities. They have begun to pass sweeping reforms to stem the tide, but many are simply slowing the growth rather than bending the curve.

Examining the role and effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration was beyond the scope of the National Research Council report, but we know that informed policy decisions will require measuring the impact of reforms and developing a larger body of research on what works. Viable alternatives that have an evidence-based impact on crime, imprisonment, and public spending will go a long way toward reversing this trend.

The National Research Council report is hardly the first of its kind to shed light on a challenging topic, but it is certainly the most thoughtful and comprehensive to date. The next step is for researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to take up the charge, developing, implementing, and measuring the impact of policy changes that can safely reduce correctional control in America.

Prison image from Shutterstock

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

Comments

Nancy,

Thanks for this great summary of recent research, including links to the reports. Very helpful!