NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Prisons Need To Correct

November 8, 2000

U.S. prison populations fell in the 1960s and early 1970s as convicts were channeled into community rehabilitation programs instead of prisons. But Americans became so fed up with criminals and criminality that they virtually forced their governments into incarcerating more people -- with predictable results.

  • By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the prison population was growing by up to 9 percent a year.
  • This raised the risk of prison, although the time actually served remained relatively short; but in recent years, when both the prison population and sentences have increased, the threat of prison has begun to deter crime.
  • Crime rates have fallen by one third over the past decade while the prison and jail population have risen to 2 million.
  • The U.S. no longer has high property-crime rates by international standards; the burglary rate, for example, is below average for industrial nations.

But if we want to change criminals, we must have prisons that truly correct. "We have model schools, hospitals and corporations but no model prisons," says Morgan Reynolds.

  • Prison systems must innovate and pursue promising experiments -- which means they must rely less on government jailers and more on market rules.
  • One place to begin is to start judging prisons according to the recidivism rates of their ex-convicts.
  • States should also contract out more incarceration to private organizations, especially faith-based, nonprofit prisons.
  • And corrections officials should aggressively recruit private enterprise to employ inmates inside and near prisons.

Study after study shows that real employment before release not only improves behavior behind bars, but serves as the strongest known antidote to crime after release.

Source: Morgan Reynolds (director, Criminal Justice Center, NCPA), "Crime and Punishment," Newsweek, November 13, 2000.


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