Prison Reform Requires Understanding Five Myths About Why U.S. Has Such Huge Incarceration Rate

One-third of all prisoners in the entire world are in U.S. prisons and jails. The U.S. has 2.8 million people locked up — the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Over the past 30 years there has been a dramatic increase in U.S. prison population.

An interesting article in Slate, by John Pfaff, says that reform is inevitable: “States are beginning to realize that large prison populations are boom-time luxuries they can no longer afford.”

But, Pfaff says, in order for reform to work it must be based on facts, not myths. The article outlines five myths about why the U.S. has such high incarceration rates:

MYTH No. 1: Long Sentences Drive Prison Population Growth.
Our data on time served is imperfect at best, but it appears that the time served by the median prisoner is about two years, sometimes much less. It is easy to focus on the people who are serving decades-long sentences for life or life without parole, but they make up only about 10 percent and 2.5 percent of the total prison population, respectively. The two-year median, meanwhile, holds true both in notoriously punitive states like Michigan and in more lenient ones like Minnesota. Not only is the absolute amount of time served low, in general, but in many states that amount remained flat over much of the 1990s.  So what is actually driving prison population growth? Admissions. Far more offenders who in the past would have received nonprison sentences are being locked up for short stints, driving up the overall population.

MYTH No. 2: Low-Level Drug Offenders Drive Prison Population Growth.
Only 20 percent of inmates in prisons (as opposed to jails) are locked up for drug offenses, compared with 50 percent for violent crimes and 20 percent for property offenses; most of the drug offenders are in prison for distribution, not possession. Twenty percent is admittedly much larger than approximately 3 percent, which was the fraction of prisoners serving time on drug charges in the 1970s. But if we were to release every prisoner currently serving time for a drug charge, our prison population would drop only from 1.6 million to 1.3 million. That’s not much of a decline, compared with the total number of people in prison in the 1970s — about 300,000.

MYTH No. 3: Technical Parole And Probation Violations Drive Prison Population Growth. … In 2005, about one-third of all people admitted to prison were on parole at the time (though not necessarily returning because of a violation). But the rate of parolees returning to prison has been stable for the last decade, suggesting that this doesn’t account for recent growth…. The number of parolees returning to prison is rising only because the number of people out on parole is rising.

MYTH No. 4: In The Past Three Decades, We’ve Newly Diverged From The Rest Of The World On Punishment. …
If we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we’re not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals.

MYTH No. 5: The Incarceration Boom Has Had No Effect On Crime Levels.
The best numbers available, controlling for a host of challenging statistical problems, suggest that the growth in prison populations contributed to up to 30 percent of the crime drop during the 1990s. … While prison has helped reduce crime, it’s not the most efficient tool we have. A dollar spent on police, for example, is 20 percent more effective than a dollar spent on prisons.

Pfaff’s Recommendation:
Given that, what’s the most cost-effective prison reform strategy? We need to stop admitting many minor offenders, even if they’re serving only short sentences. We need to focus less on high-profile drug statutes and more on the ways small-fry drug convictions cause later crimes to result in longer sentences. Once we start admitting fewer people to prison, we should shift money from prisons to police. If this seems like tinkering, rather than a sweeping fix, that’s because it is. See Myth No. 4: Reformers shouldn’t waste their breath trying to turn us into Europe.

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2 Responses to Prison Reform Requires Understanding Five Myths About Why U.S. Has Such Huge Incarceration Rate

  1. Rick says:

    Mike, I agree with most of Plaff’s comments. However, there are times when incarcerating low level offenders makes sense. A couple of examples will suffice: the homeowner who refuses to keep his property up despite numerous notices and fines. The resident who insists on loud parties at 12 midnight onward every Friday night despite numerous summons and fines. Those people should be locked up.

  2. Peeper says:

    Rick, at a cost to taxpayers of $30,000++ per year per prisoner you think we should lock people up for misdemeanors? I hope this is a joke. Most Americans don’t want to live in a police state.

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