How to Reduce Our Mass Incarceration Problem

How to Reduce Our Mass Incarceration Problem February 4, 2018

The Washington Post reports on a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice that provides a way to significantly reduce our prison population, which really should be a source of national shame. We have five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. We should at least stop locking up low-level offenders.

Credit: Antonu

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice concludes that “unnecessary incarceration” — imprisoning people for low-level offenses and keeping them there for years — is ruining hundreds of thousands of lives, wasting billions of dollars and having little effect on public safety.

If you’ve been following the debate over mass incarceration in the United States, these arguments sound familiar. The U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world population but nearly a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Roughly 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, giving us the highest incarceration rate of nearly any country in the world.

But the Brennan Center’s new report is noteworthy for quantifying exactly how many of our prisoners the authors believe shouldn’t be behind bars. Approximately 364,000 people are serving prison time for low-level offenses, like drug possession and minor burglaries. In recent years, more and more research has shown that prison terms are not particularly effective at deterring these crimes or rehabilitating the people who commit them. For these individuals, time behind bars may even increase their likelihood to commit more crime in the future.

As part of a three-year analysis of state and federal penal codes and prisoner data, the Brennan Center found that these low-level inmates make up roughly 25 percent of the current prison population. For these offenders, incarceration alternatives like probation, drug treatment or community service would be more effective, the report determined.

The cost to society of locking up these people is enormous, and not just in terms of state and federal budgets. It costs over $30,000 to house an inmate in prison, on average. We could send them all to college for that price, with money left over. But the societal cost is far higher. Families are broken up. Lives are destroyed. Those offenders often become ineligible for any social assistance that might help them improve their lives or that of their families. Conservatives make a big deal out of fatherless homes among African-Americans, but when you’re locking up hundreds of thousands of them for minor offenses, you’re creating the problem you complain about.

There are different models for incarceration — retribution, rehabilitation, threat reduction. Retribution serves no purpose at all. Rehabilitation is far more successful outside of a prison. The only acceptable reason to imprison someone is to protect society, to keep people who are truly a great danger to others segregation so they can’t victimize anyone else. It should be limited primarily to violent offenders.

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