Law & the Courts

The High Costs of Over-incarceration

Inmates at Chino State Prison in California. (Kvork Djansezian/Getty)

We are putting in prison too many people who should not be there.

If something tends to produce allergic reactions in people, what do we call it? Allergenic. If something tends to produce cancer, we say it is carcinogenic. So what do we call something that produces more crime? Social scientists use the term “criminogenic,” but more and more it seems we should simply say “our criminal-justice system.”

Like the worst kinds of cancer, our criminal-justice system has metastasized to the point that it affects almost every level of our society. That realization was what brought together right-leaning groups, such as the Faith & Freedom Coalition and Americans for Tax Reform, and left-leaning groups, such as the ACLU and the Center for American Progress, to form the Coalition for Public Safety.

On behalf of the Coalition, we urge an overhaul of the practices of the Eighties and Nineties that have locked up an increasing number of people, consuming ever more tax dollars and roiling our society with unintended consequences.

In the past 30 years, our prison population has boomed, and federal and state prison budgets have followed suit. In the early Eighties, the federal prison system housed 25,000 inmates on a budget of a little more than $1 billion. Today, federal prisons have more than 209,000 inmates, operate at almost 130 percent of capacity, and have a $6.85 billion budget.

Think about that. In our first 200 years as a nation, our federal prison system had grown to 25,000. That number has multiplied by a factor of eight just in the past 30 years. State prisons have mirrored this dramatic increase; Louisiana’s prison population is burgeoning, and Alabama’s prison system is operating at an incredible 190 percent of capacity.

The incarceration rate is so high that the system is not making us any safer.

Social scientists now tell us that the incarceration rate is so high that the system is not making us any safer. In fact, it has created conditions that can foster anti-social behavior by damaging the economic prospects of prisoners’ families and harming the social fabric.

Dr. Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago and co-author of Freakonomics, was one of the most influential supporters of tough criminal-justice policies in the Nineties. In a 2012 New York Times interview, Dr. Levitt said, “We know that harsher punishments lead to less crime, but we also know that the millionth prisoner we lock up is a lot less dangerous to society than the first guy we lock up.” He added: “In the mid 1990s, I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration. Today, my guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

So if the millionth prisoner is a lot less dangerous than the first, what might we surmise about the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States? There is no question about it: Certain violent criminals need to spend plenty of well-deserved time in a penitentiary. But that leaves the problem of the hundreds of thousands of low-risk, nonviolent offenders.

A recent rush of state reforms aimed at reducing prison populations has revealed an interesting pattern. The 14 states that have been seriously working on reducing their prison populations saw declines in both incarceration and crime. Between 1999 and 2012, New York reduced its prison population by 26 percent. The state’s total crime rate dropped 28 percent. Between 2007 and 2012, Texas reduced its incarceration rate by 9 percent and saw its total crime rate drop by 16 percent. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Utah all lowered their imprisonment rates and saw crime rates drop as well. And they were saving billions of taxpayer dollars in the process.

Once researchers realized that when states lowered incarceration rates, they not only saved money but experienced lower crime rates, closer examination showed that over-incarceration might actually increase future crime. When a low-level, nonviolent offender enters prison, he or she is likely to be warehoused with prisoners who have committed more serious, even violent crimes. Overcrowded prisons mixing violent and nonviolent offenders breed violent, anti-social behavior. And violence in prison doesn’t exactly shorten inmates’ sentences — quite the opposite. So, offenders entering prison for nonviolent crimes often face the very real problem that if they respond to threats with violence, they risk extended time in prison.

When an inmate is finally released, he often has trouble finding a job and reintegrating into society for a number of reasons, including legal barriers, social stigma, and psychological scarring from prison. Each year, approximately 600,000 prisoners reenter society. But once someone has spent time in prison, he is likely to have difficulty renting a house or apartment. Sixty percent face long-term unemployment, and those who can find jobs earn 40 percent less than workers with similar skills. Lack of stability increases the odds that former prisoners will commit new crimes.

Of course, our criminal-justice system takes a toll not only on the offenders, but on their families and neighborhoods. And that toll is intergenerational: There are 2.7 million children with a parent behind bars.

The more people we put into prison who do not need to be there, the more the spiral continues. “Criminogenic” may not roll easily off the tongue, but the effect has been rolling downhill for years, and we have long since passed the point of diminishing returns. The time is now to fix this with smart reforms to our justice system, following the 14 states that have shown the way.

– Timothy Head is the executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Grover Norquist is the president of Americans for Tax Reform. Both are members of the Coalition for Public Safety.

 

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