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«This PDF is available from The National Academies Press at The Growth of Incarceration in the United ...»

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scale may simply be reflecting the aging of the prison population (regardless of whether this is attributable to longer sentences), which coincided with rising imprisonment rates. Further complicating the decreasing returns interpretation is the changing composition of the prison population with respect to the types of offenses for which prisoners have been convicted. For more than four decades, the percentage of prisoners incarcerated for nonPart I Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) index crimes13 has increased substantially (Blumstein and Beck, 1999, 2005). Thus, the reduction in crime prevention effectiveness may be due to the types of prisoners incarcerated rather than the high rate of incarceration itself.

All of these studies, whether instrumental variables-based or not, also suffer from an important conceptual flaw that limits their usefulness in understanding deterrence and devising crime control policy. Prison population is not a policy variable per se; rather, it is an outcome of sanction policies dictating who goes to prison and for how long—the certainty and severity of punishment. In all incentive-based theories of criminal behavior in the tradition of Bentham and Beccaria, the deterrence response to sanction threats is posed in terms of the certainty and severity of punishment, not the incarceration rate. Therefore, to predict how changes in certainty and severity might affect the crime rate requires knowledge of the relationship of the crime rate to certainty and severity as separate entities. This knowledge is not provided by the literature that analyzes the relationship of the crime rate to the incarceration rate.

These studies also were conducted at an overly global level. Nagin (1998) discusses two dimensions of sanction policies that affect incarceration rates. The first—“type”—encompasses three categories of policies: those that determine the certainty of punishment, such as by requiring mandatory imprisonment; those that affect sentence length, such as determinate sentencing laws; and those that regulate parole powers. The second dimension— “scope”—distinguishes policies with a broad scope, such as increased penalties for a wide range of crimes, from policies focused on particular crimes (e.g., drug offenses) or criminals (e.g., repeat offenders).

The 5-fold growth in incarceration rates over the past four decades is attributable to a combination of policies belonging to all cells of this matrix.

As described in Chapter 3, parole powers have been greatly curtailed and sentence lengths increased, both in general and for particular crimes (e.g., drug dealing), and judicial discretion to impose nonincarcerative sanctions has been reduced (Tonry, 1996; Blumstein and Beck, 1999, 2005; Raphael and Stoll, 2009). Consequently, any impact of the increase in prison population

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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on the crime rate reflects the effect of an amalgam of potentially interacting factors.

There are good reasons for predicting differences in the crime reduction effects of different types of sanctions (e.g., mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders versus prison diversion programs for first-time offenders). Obvious sources of heterogeneity in offender response include such factors as prior contact with the criminal justice system, demographic characteristics, and the mechanism by which sanction threats are communicated to their intended audience.

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aging on recidivism. Studies of the effect of aging on recidivism examine how rates of recidivism change with age, whereas studies of the effect of imprisonment on recidivism examine how imprisonment affects recidivism compared with a noncustodial sanction such as probation. Thus, the conclusion that rates of recidivism tend to decline with age does not contradict the conclusion that imprisonment, compared with a noncustodial sanction, may be associated with higher rates of recidivism.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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Whatever the effects of incarceration on those who have served time, research on recidivism offers a clear picture of crime among the formerly incarcerated. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has published two multistate studies estimating recidivism among state prisoners. Both take an annual cohort of prison releases and use state and federal criminal record databases to estimate rates of rearrest, reconviction, and resentencing to prison. Beck and Shipley (1989) examine criminal records for a 1983 cohort of released prisoners in 11 states, while Langan and Levin (2002) analyze a 1994 cohort in the 11 original states plus 4 others. Although the incarceration rate had roughly doubled between 1983 and 1994, the results of the two studies are strikingly similar: the 3-year rearrest rate for state prisoners was around two-thirds in both cohorts (67.5 percent in 1994 and 62.5 percent in 1983).

Research on recidivism recently has been augmented by studies of “redemption”—the chances of criminal involvement among offenders who have remained crime free (Blumstein and Nakamura, 2009; Kurlychek et al., 2006, 2007; Soothill and Francis, 2009). Although none of these studies examines desistance among the formerly incarcerated, their findings are suggestive and point to the need for research on long-term patterns of desistance among those who have served prison time. Using a variety of cohorts in the United States and the United Kingdom, this research finds that the offending rate of the formerly arrested or those with prior criminal convictions converges toward the (age-specific) offending rate of the general population, conditional on having been crime free for the previous 7 to 10 years. The redemption studies also show that the rate of convergence of the formerly incarcerated tends to be slower if ex-offenders are younger or if they have a long criminal history.





Rehabilitative programming has been the main method for reducing crime among the incarcerated. Such programming dates back to Progressive-era reforms in criminal justice that also produced a separate juvenile justice system for children involved in crime, indeterminate sentencing laws with discretionary parole release, and agencies for parole and probation supervision. For much of the twentieth century, rehabilitation occupied a central place in the official philosophy—if not the practice—of U.S.

corrections. This philosophy was significantly challenged in the 1970s when a variety of reviews found that many rehabilitative programs yielded few reductions in crime (Martinson, 1974; National Research Council, 1978a). By the late 1990s, consensus had begun to swing back in favor of rehabilitative programs. Gaes and colleagues (1999) report, with little controversy, that well-designed programs can achieve significant reductions in recidivism, and that community-based programs and programs for juveniles tend to be more successful than programs applied in custody and with adult clients. Gaes and colleagues also point to the special value Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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of cognitive-behavioral therapies that help offenders manage conflict and aggressive and impulsive behaviors.

Since the review of Gaes and colleagues, there have been several important evaluations of transitional employment and community supervision programs (Hawken and Kleiman, 2009; Redcross et al., 2012). Results for transitional employment among parole populations have been mixed. Over a 3-year follow-up period, prison and jail incarceration was significantly reduced by a 6-week period of transitional employment, but arrests and convictions were unaffected. Parole and probation reforms involving both sanctions that are swift and certain but mild and sanctions that are graduated have been shown to reduce violations and revocations. Because evaluation of such programs is ongoing, information about other postprogram effects is not yet available.

Researchers and policy makers often have claimed that prison is a “school for criminals,” immersing those with little criminal history with others who are heavily involved in serious crime. Indeed, this view motivated a variety of policies intended to minimize social interaction among the incarcerated in the early nineteenth-century penitentiary. Much of the research reported in Chapters 6 through 9 on the individual-level effects of incarceration suggests plausible pathways by which prison time may adversely affect criminal desistance. Research suggests the importance of steady employment and stable family relationships for desisting from crime (Sampson and Laub, 1993; Laub and Sampson, 2003). To the extent that incarceration diminishes job stability and disrupts family relationships, it may also be associated with continuing involvement in crime. As previously indicated, Nagin and colleagues (2009) found that a substantial number of studies report evidence of a criminogenic effect of imprisonment, although they also conclude that most of these studies were based on weak research designs.

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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offenses also produced a large increase in the incarceration rate for these offenses. From 1980 to 2010, the state incarceration rate for drug offenses grew from 15 per 100,000 to more than 140 per 100,000, a faster rate of increase than for any other offense category. State prison admissions for drug offenses grew most rapidly in the 1980s, increasing from about 10,000 in 1980 to about 116,000 by 1990 and peaking at 157,000 in 2006 (Beck and Blumstein, 2012, Figures 12 and 13).

As discussed in Chapter 4, successive iterations of the war on drugs, announced by the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations, focused drug control policy on both the supply side and the demand side of the illegal drug market. The intensified law enforcement efforts not only were aimed chiefly at reducing the supply of drugs, but also were intended to reduce the demand for drugs. On the supply side, the specific expectation of policy makers has been that, by taking dealers off the streets and raising the risks associated with selling drugs, these enforcement strategies and more severe punishments would reduce the supply of illegal drugs and raise prices, thereby reducing drug consumption. On the demand side, penalties for possession became harsher as well, and criminal justice agencies became actively involved in reducing demand through the arrest and prosecution of drug users. As a result of this twin focus on supply and demand, incarceration rates for drug possession increased in roughly similar proportion to incarceration rates for drug trafficking (Caulkins and Chandler, 2006).

Much of the research on drug control policy—and specifically, on the effectiveness of law enforcement and criminal justice strategies in carrying out those policies—is summarized in two reports of the National Research Council (2001, 2011). On the supply side of the drug market, the 2001 report finds that “there appears to be nearly unanimous support for the idea that the current policy enforcing prohibition of drug use substantially raises the prices of illegal drugs relative to what they would be otherwise” (p. 153). However, the combined effect of both supply- and demand-side enforcement on price is uncertain (Kleiman, 1997; Kleiman et al., 2011;

Reuter, 2013) because effective demand-suppression policies will tend to decrease rather than increase price. Thus, the well-documented reduction in the price of most drugs since the early 1980s (Reuter, 2013) may, in principle, be partly a reflection of success in demand suppression.16 Nevertheless, 16 National data on drug price trends come from the System to Retrieve Information from Drug Evidence (STRIDE), which combines information on acquisitions of illegal drugs by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Metropolitan Police of the District of Columbia (MPDC). The underlying reporting base from DEA field offices is very sparse, and earlier National Research Council reports warn of the acute limitations of the STRIDE data.

The data show large declines in the prices of cocaine and heroin since the early 1980s, and prices have largely been fluctuating around a historically low level over the past two decades.

A typical estimate records a decline in the price of a pure gram of powder cocaine from $400 Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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the ultimate objective of both supply- and demand-side enforcement efforts is to reduce the consumption of illicit drugs, and there is little evidence that enforcement efforts have been successful in this regard. The National Research Council (2001, p. 193) concludes: “In summary, existing research seems to indicate that there is little apparent relationship between severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and prevalence or frequency of use, and that perceived legal risk explains very little in the variance of individual drug use.” Although data often are incomplete and of poor quality, the best empirical evidence suggests that the successive iterations of the war on drugs—through a substantial public policy effort—are unlikely to have markedly or clearly reduced drug crime over the past three decades.

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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CONCLUSION



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