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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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Because incarceration imposes pain and loss on both those sentenced and, frequently, their families and others, these costs also must be weighed against its social benefits in determining when or whether the deprivation of liberty is justified. This equation must consider as well the harms caused by those sent to prison. These harms include those experienced by individual victims and the broader negative social effects emanating from the criminal act. By punishing breaches of the social compact, vindicating the victims of crime often is viewed as an important purpose of the criminal sanction. Such an analysis of costs and benefits must be both normative and empirical. While there are no scientific solutions to normative problems, evidence on the effects of incarceration can inform that analysis. Moreover, given the pain imposed by imprisonment and other harsh punishments, it may be reasonable to minimize their use when alternatives can achieve the same social benefits at lower cost to society. High incarceration rates may signal that in many instances, prison is being used when alternatives would achieve equal or better outcomes for society.

Because incarceration encompasses a range of experiences that vary widely across individuals and from one era or place to another, its effects are difficult to assess. This variation arises not only from differences in the legal terms of sentences, such as length and conditions for release, but also from differences in the conditions of confinement and after release. Harsh or abusive prison environments can cause damage to those subjected to them, just as environments that offer treatment and opportunities to learn and work can provide them with hope, skills, and other assets. So while we talk about incarceration as a single phenomenon, it in fact describes a wide range of experiences that may have very different effects.

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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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approach was first to identify the strongest, most methodologically rigorous individual studies and then, where possible, to review multiple studies using differing methods to establish the extent to which there is compelling evidence, and some degree of agreement, on the causes or effects of high rates of incarceration in the United States. Although there is something to be learned from the experience of other affluent societies that have followed a different path, our main point of reference was earlier in this country’s history, when incarceration rates were a fraction of what they are today.

Guiding Principles A discussion of values has been notably missing from the nation’s recent policy debates on the use of prison. Although policies on criminal punishment necessarily embody ideas about justice, fairness, and desert, the recent policy discourse often has been characterized by overheated rhetoric or cost-benefit calculations that mask strong but hidden normative assumptions. Basic principles for penal reform should be transparent and open to debate.

In the period of rising incarceration rates and public concerns about safety, elected officials and other policy makers have argued that those committing crimes should be held accountable and punished severely. These values of offender accountability and crime control have become paramount, and older principles that balance the tendency to harsh punishment have receded from the policy debate. In undertaking this study, the committee reviewed the scholarly literature on the role of prison in society and the principles governing correctional policy generally. Based on this review, the committee articulated a set of guiding normative principles that, if observed, would restore balance to the discussion of criminal justice values.

The following four normative principles helped the committee interpret the scientific evidence and guided the committee in carrying out its charge to

recommend new policy alternatives:

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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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Rather than describing the positive goals of imprisonment, each of these principles describes a different kind of constraint. These principles also set firm limits on one of the main impulses behind the dramatic rise in incarceration—the desire for retribution. We recognize that the urge to express public disapproval of criminal behavior is a legitimate purpose of punishment, but the disapproval of crime must be expressed within the bounds set by other normative convictions. The state’s authority to deliberately deprive people of their liberty through incarceration may be abused, and its misuse may undermine its legitimacy. We elaborate on the scholarly basis for each of the above principles in Chapter 12.

Understanding Causes Researchers seeking to understand the causes of the rise in incarceration (discussed in detail in Chapters 3 and 4) have been able to identify and estimate the effects of several proximate causes, including specific state and federal policy choices. These include not only legislated policies but also changes in police practice, the behavior of prosecutors and judges, and the administration of parole, as well as other changes in how laws are implemented. These direct influences on the numbers incarcerated, however, have a social and historical context, including public concerns about crime and disorder, political incentives to respond to or exploit those concerns, and a complex history and evolution of racial and ethnic group relationships and politics.





Understanding the deeper sources of the rise in incarceration rates calls for other kinds of evidence and analysis than those applied in exploring proximate causes, along with a more subjective set of judgments about how to interpret that evidence. For example, it is not always possible to assess the motivation and incentives of leaders or voters that contributed to putting more people behind bars. The analytical problem is complicated by the largely autonomous decisions and actions taken by multiple actors in the states and the federal government. Nevertheless, the committee devoted considerable effort to exploring such questions of causality in the belief that a better understanding of how the United States reached this point is essential to understanding where the country should go from here.

Our analysis of both causes and consequences (discussed below) must remain provisional because the growth of incarceration is so recent, its effects are still unfolding, and the level and uses of incarceration at a given moment in time are the result of a complex set of past and ongoing social and political changes. Beginning in the 1960s, a complex combination of organized protests, urban riots, violent crime and drug use, the collapse of urban schools, and many other factors contributed to declining economic opportunities in many neighborhoods and too often to greater fear 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 crime. After 1970, a wave of heavy industry closings and mass layoffs resulting from technological changes, international competition, and shifting markets contributed to the elimination of many relatively high-paying jobs for less educated workers with specialized skills. Places hardest hit by the wave of industrial losses also experienced large and sustained increases in crime (National Research Council, 2008, p. 5). In the 1980s, a wave of crack cocaine use and related street crime hit many of the nation’s already distressed inner cities.

In the wake of these and other structural shifts, employment fell among young people with little schooling and work experience. The income gap between unskilled and skilled workers widened. Large-scale migrations from rural to urban areas and an influx of lower-skilled undocumented workers from Mexico and Central America coincided with this widening inequality. In past decades, then, as growing percentages of all ethnic and racial groups have graduated from high school and went on to higher education, those who dropped out were left further behind with fewer options for earning a living.

In response to the protests and turmoil of the 1960s, major national commission reports examined the causes of racial division and the historical roots of violence in the United States (President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, 1967; National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968; U.S. National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, 1969; National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1973). These and other experts recommended renewed efforts to address poverty and racial inequality at its roots. Following initial support for “Great Society” programs designed to tackle poverty, both an increase in violent crime starting in the 1960s and periodic civil disorder contributed to public fears of crime and support for tougher sanctions.

These fears and their political uses contributed in turn to a series of changes in criminal laws and prescribed punishments; changes in law enforcement and criminal justice procedures; and other changes affecting the frequency and severity of punishments, including incarceration. Pessimism emerged, among professionals as well as the larger public, about the potential of prisons to rehabilitate their occupants. Those affected most directly by changes in the criminal justice system lived in the neighborhoods most severely affected by the loss of economic opportunity and other kinds of distress, including high rates of violent crime and drug dealing. And in the past two decades of the period of the rise in incarceration rates, new attention to illegal immigration and to sex offenses led to new laws and penalties, contributing to growing numbers detained, convicted, and sentenced to prison for these offenses.

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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A full description of this complex and evolving social context for the expanded use of prison as a response to crime in the United States is beyond the scope of this study. Nonetheless, it is important to examine this history to better understand the rising use of imprisonment over nearly four decades. The committee does not view the growth of incarceration as an inevitable product of these larger social changes. The United States has experienced other periods of sweeping social change and disorder in which incarceration rates did not rise. During the recent period, moreover, the United States stood apart from other modern industrial democracies in the direction it took. To understand how U.S. incarceration rates reached their current level, the committee examined and weighed evidence of various kinds, drawing on the methods of historians, economists, and political scientists, as well as other social scientists.

Assessing Consequences The committee’s efforts to isolate the effects of the high rates of incarceration (discussed in Chapters 5 through 11) likewise faced a series of analytical challenges. For purposes of this study, we were interested in the aggregate effects of higher incarceration rates on individuals, their families and children, the communities from which they come, and U.S. society. Our ability to measure these effects depends in part on inferences drawn from numerous studies examining how the lives of those incarcerated differ from the lives of those otherwise like them who have not experienced incarceration. If, for instance, those who go to prison fare worse than others, is this then due to incarceration or some other factor, such as illiteracy or drug addiction, which is correlated with incarceration? Because the personal characteristics or behaviors that put people at greater risk of incarceration may cause them to do poorly in other ways, researchers may find it difficult to isolate the effects of incarceration.

To the extent that the effects of incarceration on individuals and their families can be measured, one may infer that a rise in incarceration rates will cause those effects to be more widespread. However, measurement of aggregate effects over time poses a second set of research challenges. One of these is the need to separate effects leading to or arising from the growth of incarceration in the United States from other, more or less contemporaneous social changes, such as changes in crime rates or labor market conditions. For example, if homicide rates fell in the United States after 1980, is it methodologically feasible to determine whether any part of that decline can be attributed to increased incarceration, taking into account all the simultaneous changes in other aspects of the society and the environment that have been shown to influence homicide? This was a central question Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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for the committee to address, but the methodological challenges make it a difficult one to answer.

As rates of many major crime types rose and fell for more than five decades, incarceration rates started to rise nationally in 1973 and continued to rise for 40 years, stabilizing only recently (Tonry, 2012; see Figure 1-1).

Some may compare the decline in crime rates after 1980 and again in the 1990s with the increase in incarceration rates and infer that incarceration greatly reduces crime. However, studies of crime trends that consider many possible influences, including changes in incarceration rates, have had limited success separating different causes. Evidence concerning the complex relationship between crime and incarceration rates is reviewed in Chapter 5.



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