Much attention has been paid to the issue of mass incarceration in recent weeks, and deservedly so. More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in American prisons and jails at an enormous cost – both human and financial – and diminishing public safety benefit.
Over the weekend, the New York Times joined the chorus calling for an end to mass incarceration and the policies that have contributed to it. Citing recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences and the Hamilton Project, the editorial board declared our four-decades-long experiment with ever-increasing punishment a “moral, legal, social, and economic disaster.” But as the board points out—comparing the “overwhelming evidence” on mass incarceration with the science on global warming—it is no longer news that the United States locks up too many people.
Far less established is how to go about reducing the prison population and the harms associated with it. Policymakers and other decisionmakers are seeking reforms that will sustainably reduce correctional control, spending on prisons, and the harmful long-term effects of a felony conviction. The challenge is providing them with research on alternatives to incarceration that will encourage them to pursue more ambitious reductions in prison admissions and time served. That is why the current momentum on these issues comes at such a critical time.
Whether we have reached a tipping point in our experiment with mass incarceration will depend on our ability to measure the impact of existing reforms and provide the evidence base for new and promising ideas. In doing so, it’s important to remember the following:
Correctional control extends beyond the number of people of prison and jail. For every person incarcerated, more than two people are being supervised by probation or parole. These populations are a major driver of the prison population, in particular the population of inmates who have committed non-violent offenses. Crimes that did not merit incarceration at sentencing often result in it after offenders fail to follow the rules of probation and more than 1 in 4 prison admissions is for a violation of parole.
Policymakers need practical solutions. Seven million people did not end up under correctional control overnight, and we’re not going to end mass incarceration by painting policy with a broad brush. Repealing “tough on crime” policies, such as mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing, would go a long way toward that goal but are unlikely to occur on a wide scale. There are thousands of criminal offenses, each often with their own penalties and time-served requirements, and state legislators remain skeptical of wholesale changes to sentencing and release laws.
But what about dramatic reductions in sentence lengths for an increase in certainty of time served in prison? What about prohibitions or limits on revocations of probation and parole when a new crime has not been committed? What about making probation the presumptive punishment for more offenses? States have begun to experiment with these types of changes, and we need to understand more about their impact on correctional populations, public budgets, and recidivism.
Incarceration is the end result of many decisions. The criminal justice system is a complicated interplay of many actors and decision points. People enter into the criminal justice system and fall under correctional control due to many factors—law enforcement funding, sentencing laws, prosecutorial practices, court decisions, release guidelines, and revocation policy, just to name a few.
State-level policy reforms are a critical first step, but we need to have a greater understanding of what works at the local level to prevent crime and how best to respond when it does happen. Research is needed on reforms both modest and ambitious.
Over the next few months, the Urban Institute will be profiling the points in the criminal justice system that result in correctional control and highlighting promising policies that merit further examination. With the right mix of responses, we can reduce correctional control in America and ultimately end mass incarceration.
Photo: Associated Press/California Department of Corrections.
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