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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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This study differs from many conducted by committees of the National Research Council with respect to its scope and the number of questions posed about a complex social phenomenon. The causes of the increase in incarceration rates are disputed, and its consequences are not fully understood. Nevertheless, a rigorous review of the evidence is now timely.

A burgeoning research literature helps explain why the U.S. incarceration rate grew so dramatically and examines the consequences for those incarcerated, their families, communities, and U.S. society. For several decades, enthusiasm for incarceration dominated crime policy and the related public Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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conversation. Commentators on both the left and the right are now reacting critically to the incarceration boom, partly out of concern for growing correctional budgets, partly because of questions about the effectiveness of incarceration in reducing crime, and partly out of misgivings about the values that have come to dominate penal policy (e.g., Gramlich, 2013;

Kabler, 2013; Alexander, 2010). Reform, it appears, is under way. At the state level and in the federal government, many elected officials are supporting initiatives aimed at reducing prison populations and are turning to the research evidence for guidance. In this context, the committee hopes to inform a critical conversation about the significance of high incarceration rates for U.S. society and the future of the nation’s penal and social policies.

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 address the study charge, the National Research Council assembled a committee of 20 scholars and practitioners to review and assess the research evidence. The committee members include not only criminologists and sociologists who have conducted original research on these issues but also representatives of other academic disciplines, including economics, political science, psychology, law, medicine, and history, who brought to bear different methods and perspectives. The members include those whose professional experience gives them practical insights into the workings of the judicial and corrections systems and the policy debates in the legislative and executive branches of government. To aid in this study, the committee also enlisted several other scholars with specialized expertise to review Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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particular subsets of questions, such as the health and public health implications of incarceration; the policy shifts and system dynamics leading to higher incarceration rates; and the availability in prisons of rehabilitative education, training, treatment, and work experience.

We hope the result of the committee’s work will be seen as a fair summary of what is known today about the sources of the rise of incarceration in the United States; how it has affected people, communities, and society;

and the implications of that knowledge for public policies determining future rates of incarceration.

A central question for public policy is whether increasing the incarceration rates affect public safety and, conversely, whether crime rates contributed to the growth of imprisonment in America. The historical relationship between crime and incarceration is complex. On the one hand, the decades-long rise in incarceration rates began following a substantial rise in crime rates in the United States. Yet the growth of the prison population continued through and after a major decline in crime rates in the 1990s.

In reviewing the evidence, the committee paid attention to the effects of changes in state and federal policy and practice over the period of the rise in incarceration rates, including the relationship of policy changes to crime rates. We noted that in many instances, these policy choices reflected and resulted from broader political and social currents, including, for a variety of reasons, a marked tendency to resort to imprisonment, and harsh punishments generally, as society’s preferred response to crime, even when crime rates were falling.

Understanding the impact of high rates of incarceration on crime is challenging. Incarceration can reduce crime by incapacitating those who would otherwise be committing crimes in free society. Incarceration may also deter or rehabilitate those who are punished from committing future crimes. Fear of such punishment may deter others from committing crimes.

On the other hand, the prison experience and its aftermath may in some cases contribute to future criminal activity. The net effect of incarceration on crime will vary depending, for example, on who is sent to prison, the type of crime, the length of sentences, and how people are treated while in prison and after release. Despite a large and growing body of studies exploring the complex relationship between crime and incarceration rates over recent decades, then, a precise quantification of the impact of high rates of incarceration on U.S. crime rates remains a significant scientific challenge.





In this report, we are not simply concerned with explaining changes in the rates of incarceration. Nor are we limited to analyzing the effects of imprisonment on individuals who serve prison sentences during the era of high incarceration. We also consider the aggregate, cumulative effects of the nation’s incarceration policies. America’s high rates of Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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incarceration have changed the meaning and consequences of a prison sentence for those who go to prison and for the families and communities to which they return. Over time, high incarceration rates may increase or decrease public safety, alter the functioning of labor markets and the economy, strengthen or weaken the fabric of communities, and skew the distribution of income and opportunity. Higher rates of incarceration also affect U.S. civic life, influence the nation’s pursuit of racial justice, and tip the balance in close elections. At the most basic level, more incarceration uses resources that could be spent for other purposes. Finally, we also assess the evidence on how high incarceration rates and their consequences affect the quality of American democracy.

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2 The committee considered and rejected the notion that the incarceration rate might also be presented as a ratio of those in prison to crimes reported. There is no analytical connection between one year’s crimes and a prison population sentenced for crimes committed years ago.

3 A convenient summary history of thinking about incarceration and its uses can be found

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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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Crime and punishment are social and legal constructs. Their nature and meanings change over time and differ from one society (and one person) to another. In American jurisprudence, a prison sentence serves three possible purposes. First, the purpose of a prison sentence may be understood primarily as retribution, or “just deserts,” meaning that the severity of a given crime requires deprivation of the liberty of the person found guilty of that crime. Second, a prison sentence may be justified as a way of preventing crime, either through deterrence of the individual sentenced (specific deterrence), deterrence of others in society at large who may be inclined to offend (general deterrence), or avoidance of crimes that might otherwise have been committed by that individual absent incarceration (incapacitation).

Finally, a prison sentence may be deemed justified as a means of preventing future crimes through the rehabilitation of the individual incarcerated. Of course, these rationales are not mutually exclusive.

Throughout U.S. history, the emphasis on one or another rationale for incarceration has shifted significantly, and it continues to change. As a consequence, the conditions of confinement and the experience of returning to society also have changed. To understand the effects of the rise in incarceration, one must examine how prison environments have changed as the numbers of prisoners have increased and how this changed environment may lead to different outcomes for the individuals incarcerated.

Whereas the jurisprudence of incarceration emphasizes the purposes of retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, criminal punishment also provides a vivid moral symbol, publicly condemning criminal conduct. Thus the French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1984) argued that penal law affirms basic values and helps build social solidarity. By this account, punishment activates society’s moral sentiments and reinforces the collective sense of right and wrong. Critics have objected that, rather than reflecting “society as a whole,” institutions of punishment under real conditions of social and economic inequality burden the disadvantaged (Spitzer, 1991; Lukes and Scull, 1983; Garland, 2013). From this perspective, prisons and jails reflect and perhaps exacerbate social inequalities rather than promote social solidarity. Legal principle has grappled with the penal system’s innate potential for injustice. Rules of constraint were developed to restrict the unbridled and arbitrary application of punishment. Expressed in the language of Western jurisprudence, justice requires that society’s decision to deprive a citizen of liberty through imprisonment be constrained by two countervailing principles: proportionality (punishment should be tailored to the severity of the crime) and parsimony (punishment should not be more severe than required to achieve a legitimate public purpose) (see the discussion of guiding principles below).

Some scholars have argued that, in light of this nation’s long history of troubled race relations, it is especially important to consider whether Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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prison and other punishments unfairly burden African Americans and other minority groups. If so, the justice system only reinforces historical inequalities, thereby undermining the social compact that should undergird the nation’s laws. Other scholars have stressed the utilitarian value of prison for achieving socially desired ends. From this societal viewpoint, the use of incarceration is assessed according to whether its social benefits exceed its social costs. By this instrumental view, imprisonment can be used, for example, to contain and discourage crime—directly by confining those prone to commit further crimes or by deterring them or, by example, others from committing future crimes. Assessments of the effectiveness of policies favoring incarceration would therefore depend on an empirical understanding of its purported benefit of crime prevention or other social benefits, weighed against the direct costs of the prisons themselves and the indirect social costs incurred by removing incarcerated individuals from society.

Prisons also can support the rehabilitation of those incarcerated so that after release, they are more likely to live in a law-abiding way and reintegrate successfully into the rhythms of work, family, and civic engagement.

In this narrower view of the instrumental value of incarceration policies, the effectiveness of prisons is measured by such outcomes as lower rates of recidivism and higher rates of employment, supportive family connections, improved health outcomes, and the standing of the formerly incarcerated as citizens in the community. The relevant scholarly literature focuses on issues of the availability and effectiveness of programs; the impact of the prison environment on the self-concept, behavior, and human capital of those incarcerated; and the experience of leaving prison and returning home.

Yet another stream of scholarly inquiry examines the role of the criminal justice system, and in particular the role of prisons, in controlling entire categories or communities of people. In this view, the laws of society and the instruments of punishment have been used throughout history to sustain those in power by suppressing active opposition to entrenched interests and deterring challenges to the status quo. This scholarly literature has examined the role of the justice system—including the definition of crimes by legislatures, enforcement of laws by the police, and uses of incarceration—in dealing with new immigrant groups, the labor and civil rights movements, the behavior of the mentally ill, and the use of alcohol and illegal drugs, to cite some examples. In recent years, scholars in this tradition have focused on the impact of the justice system on racial minorities in the United States and specifically on the impact of recent high rates of incarceration on the aspiration for racial equality. Researchers who study the power relations of society reflected in the criminal justice system often observe that the poor, minorities, and the marginal are seen as dangerous or undeserving. In these cases, the majority will support harsh punishments entailing long sentences and the use of imprisonment for lesser offenses. The effect of 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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and other punishments used in this way may be to reproduce and deepen existing social and economic inequalities.



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