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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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Fathers’ incarceration and family hardship, including housing insecurity and behavioral problems in children, are strongly related. The partners and children of prisoners are particularly likely to experience adverse outcomes if the men were positively involved with their families prior to incarceration. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with incarcerated fathers increased from about 350,000 to 2.1 million—about 3 percent of all U.S.

children. From 1991 to 2007, the number of children with a father or mother in prison increased 77 percent and 131 percent, respectively.

The rise in incarceration rates marked a massive expansion of the role of the justice system in the nation’s poorest communities. Many of those entering prison come from and will return to these communities. When they return, their lives often continue to be characterized by violence, joblessness, substance abuse, family breakdown, and neighborhood disadvantage.

The best evidence to date leaves uncertain the extent to which these conditions of life are themselves exacerbated by incarceration. It is difficult to draw strong causal inferences from the research, but there is little question that incarceration has become another strand in the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S.

cities.

Given the evidence, crime reduction and socioeconomic disadvantage are both plausible outcomes of increased incarceration, but estimates of the size of these effects range widely. The vast expansion of the criminal justice system has created a large population whose access to public benefits, occupations, vocational licenses, and the franchise is limited by a criminal Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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conviction. High rates of incarceration are associated with lower levels of civic and political engagement among former prisoners and their families and friends than among others in their communities. Disfranchisement of former prisoners and the way prisoners are enumerated in the U.S. census combine to weaken the power of low-income and minority communities.

For these people, the quality of citizenship—the quality of their membership in American society and their relationship to public institutions—has been impaired. These developments have created a highly distinct political and legal universe for a large segment of the U.S. population.

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The consequences of the decades-long build-up of the U.S. prison population have been felt most acutely in minority communities in urban areas already experiencing significant social, economic, and public health disadvantages. For policy and public life, the magnitude of the consequences of incarceration may be less important than the overwhelming evidence of this correlation. In communities of concentrated disadvantage—characterized by high rates of poverty, violent crime, mental illness and drug addiction— the United States embarked on a massive and unique intensification of criminal punishment. Although many questions remain unanswered, the greatest significance of the era of high incarceration rates may lie in that simple descriptive fact.

Policies regulating criminal punishment cannot be determined only by the scientific evidence. The decision to deprive another human being of his or her liberty is, at root, anchored in beliefs about the relationship between the individual and society and the role of criminal sanctions in preserving the social compact. Thus, sound policies on crime and incarceration will reflect a combination of science and fundamental principles.

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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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society can impose. Even under the best conditions, incarceration can do great harm—not only to those who are imprisoned, but also more broadly to families, communities, and society as a whole. Moreover, the forcible deprivation of liberty through incarceration is vulnerable to misuse, threatening the basic principles that underpin the legitimacy of prisons.

The jurisprudence of punishment and theories of social policy have sought to limit public harm by appealing to long-standing principles of fairness and shared social membership. We believe that as policy makers and the public consider the implications of the findings presented in this report, they also should consider the following four principles whose application

would constrain the use of incarceration:

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1 Political theorists and legal analysts have often observed that public policy necessarily embodies ethical judgments about means or ends. These judgments are informed by normative principles: basic ideals or values—often embedded in history, institutions, and public understanding—that offer a yardstick by which good governance is measured (see, e.g., Gillroy and Wade 1992).

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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POLICY IMPLICATIONS AND RECOMMENDATION

We have looked at an anomalous period in U.S. history, examining why it arose and with what consequences. Given the available evidence regarding the causes and consequences of high incarceration rates, and guided by fundamental normative principles regarding the appropriate use of imprisonment as punishment, we believe that the policies leading to high incarceration rates are not serving the country well. We are concerned that the United States has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits. Indeed, we believe that the high rates of incarceration themselves constitute a source of injustice and, possibly, social harm. A criminal justice system that made less use of incarceration might better achieve its aims than a harsher, more punitive system

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We recommend such a systematic review of penal and related policies with the goals of achieving a significant reduction in the number of people in prison in the United States and providing better conditions for those in prison. To promote these goals, jurisdictions would need to review a range of programs, including community-based alternatives to incarceration, probation and parole, prisoner reentry support, and diversion from prosecution, as well as crime prevention initiatives.

Given the evidence that incarceration has been overused when less harmful alternatives could plausibly achieve better individual and social outcomes, we specifically urge consideration of changes in sentencing and other policies. We also propose that policy makers and citizens rethink the role played by prisons in addressing public safety and seek out crime reduction strategies that are more effective and less harmful. In many cases, alternatives to incarceration would be more practical and efficient ways to achieve the same objectives. Although a comprehensive review of the research on noncustodial sanctions and treatments was not part of our charge, that research could provide policy makers with guidance on when and how to substitute these alternatives for incarceration.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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To minimize harm from incarceration, we urge reconsideration of the conditions of confinement and programs in prisons. Given that nearly all prisoners are eventually released, attention should be paid to how prisons can better serve society by addressing the need of prisoners to adjust to life following release and supporting their successful reintegration with their families and communities. Reviews of the conditions and programs in prisons would benefit from being open to public scrutiny. One approach would be to subject prisons to systematic ratings related to their public purposes.

Such ratings could incorporate universal standards that recognize the humanity and citizenship of prisoners and the obligation to prepare them for life after prison.

We offer more specific suggestions for reconsideration of incarceration policies in three domains—sentencing policy, prison policy, and social policy.

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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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RESEARCH RECOMMENDATION

Recognizing that the knowledge base for many policies related to incarceration is limited, we urge the research community to work closely with the national and state governments and nongovernmental institutions to develop an ambitious and multifaceted portfolio of study to fill knowledge gaps in this field. For policy and public understanding, more studies are needed of the effects of various sanction policies, including those involving incarceration, on crime. The availability and effectiveness of alternatives to help achieve a just and safe society without a heavy reliance on incarceration need to be thoroughly studied.

The design and evaluation of promising alternatives to incarceration are of critical importance to this proposed research portfolio. Such a research program would expand the options of state officials for responding to the problem of crime. Scholars should also be engaged in policy discussions about the costs and benefits of various changes in sentencing policy that would reduce rates of incarceration. Researchers should expand the number of systematic evaluations of prison-based programs, aid in the development of evidence-based policies that promote humane prison conditions, and help design and evaluate reentry programs that support successful reintegration.

Finally, when these interventions have proven effective, the research community should offer its expertise to assist in bringing them to scale.

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Research aimed at developing a better understanding of (1) the experience of being incarcerated and its effects, (2) alternative sentencing policies, and (3) the impact of incarceration on communities is outlined in the report’s final chapter and expanded on in Appendix C.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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transformed not only the criminal justice system, but also U.S. race relations and the institutional landscape of urban poverty.

The U.S. justice system has charted a unique path to crime control that traverses poor and minority communities across the country. A number of research literatures explore the sources of rising incarceration rates in policy and social change; the relationship between crime and incarceration; and the effects of incarceration on the employment, health, and family life of the formerly incarcerated and more broadly on U.S. civic life. Yet there has

been no comprehensive effort to date to assess the causes, scope, and consequences of contemporary incarceration rates. Four questions stand out:

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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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authority in the performance of its many other functions. As many have remarked, the use and character of incarceration thus reveals something fundamental about a society’s level of civilization and the quality of citizenship (de Beaumont and de Tocqueville, 1970; Churchill, 1910; Dostoevsky, 1861).

Imprisonment lies at one end of a continuum of legally ordered restraints on liberty, some imposed not as punishment but as part of the criminal justice process prior to a possible charge or conviction or following release from confinement. At the other end of the continuum are forms of community supervision, such as probation and parole, as well as in-home detention. Compared with punishment outside a facility, confinement in a local jail or detention facility for short periods is likely to be seen and experienced as a more severe form of punishment. Prison incarceration then follows. Of course, imprisonment itself varies in severity, depending on the specifics of confinement and treatment.

Contemporary incarceration takes many forms. The juvenile justice system has developed a special set of rules and protocols for the detention of children. Criminally convicted adults are held in state or federal prisons, generally serving more than a year for a felony. Local jails typically detain those serving short sentences or awaiting trial. Immigrants awaiting deportation may be held in federal detention facilities. The mentally ill may be housed under civil commitment to state hospitals. The conditions of incarceration, like those who are confined, thus show considerable variation.

The primary focus of this report is on adults incarcerated in prisons and jails. Prisoners form an important subset of this group because of their large numbers among the total incarcerated population and the long terms of their confinement. Throughout the report, therefore, we often focus specifically on prison incarceration. The size of the prison population depends not only on the number of crimes, arrests, convictions, and prison commitments but also on the use of alternatives to incarceration and on responses to violations of the terms of parole or probation. Although other forms of incarceration outside of the adult criminal justice system are undeniably important, they have been less important to the steep rise in incarceration over the past four decades that forms our main charge.



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