NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Responsible Prison Reform

July 10, 2013

Over the past few decades, the United States has witnessed an enormous increase in the number of people in jail and in prison. As a response to surging crime rates in the 1960s and 1970s, the nation got "tough on crime" (stepping up policing, increasing arrests and lengthening sentences), producing hordes of new inmates. In 1979, around the time that imprisonment rates began their sharp uptick, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that 314,000 people sat behind bars in the United States. As of mid-2013, that number stood at about 2 million. Today, the United States has roughly 5 percent of the world's population and nearly a quarter of its inmates, says Eli Lehrer, co-founder and president of R Street Institute.

The evidence shows that this mass incarceration has performed more or less as advertised.

  • By any measure, nearly every neighborhood, city and state in the United States has become safer over the past two decades.
  • Crime rates in many categories are at less than half of their all-time highs.

However, the costs of incarceration (both financial and societal) are also becoming increasingly clear. The policies that were appropriate for a nation that had one of the highest crime rates among developed Western countries are not necessarily appropriate for a nation that now has one of the lowest.

Crime rates started dropping in the early 1990s and have fallen almost every year since. While new policing tactics, demographics and cultural trends certainly contributed to the decline, there is no doubt that mass incarceration did as well.

  • The benefits of this decline also manifested themselves in the plunging costs of crime to society.
  • The most recent systematic effort to calculate the costs of crime, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence in 2010, concluded that each murder costs society nearly $9 million, each rape more than $240,000, and even simple motor-vehicle thefts more than $10,000 each.
  • As such, preventing even a few crimes can be well worth the financial costs of incarceration, since a single convict might commit dozens of crimes in a year.

Policymakers thus face a paradox: Locking up lots of people has contributed to a significant drop in crime that, at least from a political perspective, has helped to "solve" a once-major social problem. But incarceration is overused, expensive and offensive to democratic values. Combined with a renewed emphasis on effective punishment, increased attention to circumstances within jailhouse walls, and a different social attitude toward ex-offenders, these sound, time-tested principles can shape the new vision for prison reform that America urgently needs. The United States can and should reduce its prison population and make conditions more humane for those who serve time behind bars

Source: Eli Lehrer, "Responsible Prison Reform," National Affairs, Summer 2013.


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