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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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In a society or community where incarceration rates rise significantly, the experience of incarceration and/or its meaning for individuals and families may change, altering its effects. Given the demographic and geographic concentration of the rise in incarceration in the United States, the greatest impact has been felt by those living in the poorest communities. If the incarceration experience has become more common in some communities than others, does this new reality alter the cumulative or marginal effects of incarceration on the rates of certain types of crime, or the deterrent effects of the criminal justice system, or the employment rates of those released back into those communities? As the rate of incarceration rises, its average and marginal effects may change as well, because those being locked up may include individuals who have different responses to incarceration relative to those imprisoned when the rate was lower. Therefore, an inquiry into the consequences of high rates of incarceration might focus on whether the incarceration of larger numbers has provided diminishing returns to U.S. society—smaller benefits at higher costs—at the margin. Finally, family dynamics, marriage, and labor markets may also function differently in communities with high rates of incarceration.

Another research challenge is posed by the diverse conditions of incarceration. The experience of incarceration varies from prison to prison, from state to state, and between the state and federal systems. It is also likely that the prison experience has changed over time, in particular over the period when incarceration rates rose and prison administrators were struggling to stay abreast of the rapid expansion of their systems. Furthermore, because incarceration is not a single, uniform experience but is highly varied, even to some degree unique to each prisoner, generalizing about its effects is difficult. Depending, among other things, on the conditions and duration of confinement and release, imprisonment can be humane and even helpful.

Incarceration can provide time for reflection and personal growth, access to better health care and treatment of drug dependency or illness, respite from toxic environments or situations, and opportunities to learn and acquire skills. Alternatively, prison can be harmful and degrading, exposing the confined to criminal influence, violence, and humiliation; isolating them from nurturing human contact and personal responsibility; and leaving them poorly equipped for life outside. Generalization about prison’s effects requires more sophisticated measures of the nature of that experience than are often readily available to researchers, especially given ethical and practical barriers to conducting controlled studies inside prisons. Moreover, the prior characteristics of those incarcerated and their behavior help determine the nature of the prison experience both objectively and subjectively.

Understanding the effects of incarceration thus requires specifying in some detail the nature of that experience, as well as distinguishing its effects from the effects of these preexisting characteristics and concurrent behaviors.

Not only is the base of knowledge about the prison experience constrained by a paucity of studies, but also even the extant literature may be of limited value. Because prison conditions and sentencing practices are continually evolving, sometimes in response to the level of incarceration and related budget pressures, some findings of earlier studies may not be Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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applicable to later periods. As typical prison conditions and the number and types of people exposed to them change over time, even strong empirical findings must be viewed as provisional. For example, if there has been a shift since the 1970s from a more rehabilitative to a more punitive prison management regime, the effects of incarceration may have changed as a result.

A further limit on analysis of prison conditions is imposed by barriers to researchers’ access to prisons. In earlier times, scholars were given broad access to prisons, prisoners, and corrections officers. By contrast, the contemporary prison has not been the subject of sustained empirical inquiry, perhaps reflecting less interest on the part of researchers and wariness on the part of prison administrators. The lack of research access, combined with cutbacks in other forms of outside review—journalistic investigations of life on the inside and judicial review of legal challenges to prison conditions—means that the nation’s prison systems are less open than before to public scrutiny. Finally, prisons have not been subjected to the same degree of regular reporting and public scrutiny based on transparent, published standards of performance as some other major public institutions, such as schools and hospitals.

Because the scientific study of a social phenomenon contributes to new understanding or interpretations, it has the potential to change the phenomenon itself. Indeed, a major purpose of the committee’s work is to provide the public and policy makers with new insights that could lead to new policies. In this period of evolving public opinion and policy and rapid expansion of the role of incarceration in U.S. society, there may be more reason than usual to regard all findings on the rise in the incarceration rate, including those of this study, as provisional and a new starting point for further research.

Weighing the Evidence Summarizing research across a variety of disciplines—from history, to economics, to medicine, to law—and across a range of questions— from the historical sources of policy change to incarceration’s effects on individuals—defies any single standard of evidence or method of synthesis.

Historians and economists, for example, work with different empirical materials, and each discipline treats social context differently. Assessing employers’ responses to formerly incarcerated job seekers, an area in which randomized trials are possible, enables strong causal inferences for which statistical certainty can be estimated. Analysis of the development of punitive crime policy, an area in which history is run just once in all its complexity, is no less rigorous and empirical, but the findings will be of a different nature. In executing a charge that ranged so widely, the committee Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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encountered methodological challenges in three areas: data, consequences, and historical interpretation.

Although the incarcerated population is reasonably well accounted for during our period of study, the data landscape often is seriously incomplete.

There are no complete data series on the ethnicity and education of prison inmates, for example, so we frequently rely on estimates throughout this report. Longitudinal data following people in and out of prison and other contexts, such as schooling, work, and family, would have greatly improved our understanding of the effects of incarceration. Beyond these challenges, summarizing data from 51 prison jurisdictions (and thousands of localities) often involves glossing over the great institutional and statutory variation across the country. In this report, then, we attempt to paint a general national picture while recognizing that U.S. criminal justice is a matter largely for state and local governments. When we rely on case studies, we take care to extrapolate their lessons in light of the particular institutional context in which those lessons were generated. In general, many of the data gaps can be filled by using estimates or by pooling different data sources, but doing so necessarily adds uncertainty to the conclusions that are drawn. The major published data series on incarceration used in this report are described and assessed in Appendix B.

Besides providing an accurate portrait of the penal system, a key part of the committee’s charge concerned the consequences of incarceration. In a variety of different empirical domains—in the study of employment, health, families, and communities—incarceration is closely correlated with multiple measures of social and economic disadvantage. In rare cases, controlled experiments are possible. Just as rarely, so-called natural experiments—such as those arising from changes in law in some places but not others, or from variations in judicial interpretation or sentencing practice—produce variation in incarceration that is independent of the background conditions that are usually closely related to serving time in prison. More narrowly, the committee, like empirical researchers, was challenged to fully disentangle the effects of incarceration from those of conviction or other operational aspects of criminal justice, such as the conditions of confinement.

Finally, the committee confronted the problem of historical interpretation. For a large and regionally variable phenomenon such as the emergence of high incarceration rates, unfolding for more than four decades across 50 states and at the federal level, the historical record often does not point unambiguously to a single chain of events propelling its occurrence. As the historical narrative reaches back in time, from sentencing policy in the 1980s to the politics and social change of the 1960s and even earlier, the number of plausible rival explanations is multiplied. Both where causal inference about incarceration is threatened by correlated measures of socioeconomic disadvantage and where the historical record is open 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 alternative interpretations, we have, whenever possible, tried to look at multiple sources of empirical evidence, generated by different research designs subject to different flaws and strengths. Pulling a variety of findings together, we have attempted to characterize the weight of the evidence, often describing the scientific consensus as a plausible range of conclusions instead of a unique inference.

Empirical studies have wrestled with the methodological challenges outlined above with varying success, so a major task of this committee was to separate stronger from weaker evidence. We have tried to describe carefully the limits of current knowledge so that readers of this report can form their own judgments about the strength of the evidence and therefore its usefulness as a basis for public policy and their own actions. We have taken care to indicate where uncertainty exists in research results, clarifying what is not known as much as what is.

Applying the Evidence to Policy Based on a weighing of the evidence and its limits, the committee’s final task was to assess its implications for public policy. As already noted, these implications depend on both normative and scientific analysis. People hold differing views regarding the outcomes of policy, including the balancing of risks to public safety against both the potential social benefits and reduced costs of alternatives to the policies that have led to the current high rate of incarceration.

Members of this committee share the view that the inherent severity of incarceration as a punishment—including the harm it often does to prisoners, their families, and communities—argues for limiting its use to cases where alternatives are less effective in achieving the same social ends. The evidence reviewed in this report reveals that the costs of today’s unprecedented rate of incarceration, particularly the long prison sentences imposed under recent sentencing laws, outweigh the observable benefits. We are conscious as well that a key feature of today’s high rate of incarceration is that large proportions of poor, less educated African American and Hispanic men are likely to be in jail or prison at some time in their lives.

Indeed, for many poorly educated African American and Hispanic men, coercion is the most salient of their encounters with public authority. These findings led us to look for better policy choices.

The committee’s role is not to decide what level or use of incarceration is appropriate for the nation or a given state. Regardless of one’s values or preferences, however, choices can be informed by our assessment of the effects of and trade-offs among different policies. To the extent that tradeoffs can be quantified, alternative policy regimes can be compared in terms of the levels of incarceration and public safety and other effects they may Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

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

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produce. To the extent that evidence is conflicting or suggests a range of possible effects, alternative sets of assumptions will show a range of likely results of alternative policies.


The remainder of this report is organized around the major sets of questions posed in the committee’s charge. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the rise in the incarceration rate since the early 1970s, its components, and accompanying changes in society. Chapters 3 and 4 explore evidence regarding the complex set of factors contributing directly and indirectly to the high rate of incarceration in the United States. Chapters 5 through 11 examine evidence regarding the impacts of the rise in incarceration on crime (Chapter 5); the nature of the experience of prison for those incarcerated (Chapter 6); the effects of incarceration on prisoners’ health and mental health (Chapter 7) and employment and earnings after release (Chapter 8);

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