The United States leads the world in incarceration. How did this happen? The nation’s get-tough-on-crime policies have packed prisons and jails to the bursting point largely with poor, uneducated people of color.
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While the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has nearly 25 percent of its prisoners — about 2.2 million people.
Over the past four decades, the nation's get-tough-on-crime policies have packed prisons and jails to the bursting point, largely with poor, uneducated people of color, about half of whom suffer from mental health problems.
This startling reality has cost U.S. society in many ways, concludes a sweeping National Research Council report produced by an interdisciplinary committee of researchers.
"We reached a broad consensus on what negative impacts these policies have had on individuals, on families, on communities and on the nation," says Craig Haney, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a report co-author and member of a committee that in July briefed the White House on the report's findings.
One out of every 100 American adults is incarcerated, a per capita rate five to 10 times higher than that in Western Europe or other democracies, the report found. Though the trend has slowed in recent years — from 2006 to 2011, more than half of states trimmed their prison populations — in 2012 the United States still stood as the world leader in incarceration by a substantial margin. While the United States has 707 incarcerated people per 100,000 citizens, for example, China has 124 to 172 per 100,000 people and Iran 284 per 100,000. North Korea is perhaps the closest, but reliable numbers are hard to find; some estimates suggest 600 to 800 per 100,000.
"No other country in the world imprisons its citizens as we do in the United States," Haney says. The prison boom also has meant more resources spent on corrections — about $60 billion annually on state and federal prisons, up from $12 billion 20 years ago, according to the Pew Center on the States.
"Our incarceration policy is very costly with relatively few benefits and a lot of deleterious effects on our economy and our families and on the fabric of our communities," says June Tangney, PhD, a psychology professor at George Mason University who studies offender rehabilitation. "Being the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world is really something we need to take a second look at," she says. "It's not that we have any more criminals than the rest of the world; we're just doing different things with them."
In the past few years, as costs of incarceration have mounted, the Obama administration has worked to reduce jail time for federal prisoners in for some drug offenses. Meanwhile, legislation has been proposed to modify mandatory sentencing and increase services to prisoners that are designed to cut recidivism.
The proposed laws have had some bipartisan support, says Roberta Downing, PhD, APA's senior legislative and federal affairs officer. "There has been a recent bipartisan nexus (between) the Tea Party and liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill who are concerned about mandatory minimum sentences, recidivism, solitary confinement and other related issues," she says.
The Smarter Sentencing Act, for one, would cut some mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Some of those currently imprisoned for these offenses could apply to get their sentences reduced.
Congress is also considering the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, which would provide more drug treatment and job training and would allow inmates who complete such programs to reduce their sentences.
In addition, the U.S. Sentencing Commission earlier this year voted to cut sentences for some nonviolent drug offenses, and this change is expected to go into effect in November. This follows the commission's 2011 ruling to cut penalties for crack cocaine crimes. The U.S. attorney general's office is changing rules to allow more nonviolent, low-level drug offenders to win early release.
Some of these measures were recommended in the NRC report, which urges policymakers to revise criminal justice policies to reduce the rate of incarceration; to review mandatory minimums, long sentences and drug laws; and to consider more community-based alternatives to prison. But beyond steps to simply cut sentences and reduce the number of people in prison, the committee also recommends resources to help ensure prisoners are supported so they don't re-offend. For example, the committee recommended more vocational training and better prisoner re-entry programs as well as more research into the impact of mental illness and substance abuse on incarceration and recidivism. The committee also called for policymakers to address the wider social and economic conditions that cause crime in the first place, such as poverty, drug addiction and lack of education.
"The recommendations we made to reduce the number of people in prison and the amount of time they spent there need to go hand in hand with the other recommendations we made, which underscore the importance of providing people with resources while they're in prison to reduce the likelihood they'll come out unprepared to reintegrate into society," Haney says.
Townsend points out that incarceration can devastate communities and families separated from their loved ones. "In some communities, a majority of men have been incarcerated, which leaves a major hole in the fabric of society," says Townsend.
These men can't provide for their families and are absent from their children, with the result being higher rates of poverty and the likelihood of mental health and behavioral issues for the younger generation. That can lead to their incarceration and perpetuate the cycle of imprisonment.
Fagan notes that over the past decade, some correctional systems have developed "intermediate care units" to help seriously mentally ill inmates transition from inpatient correctional mental health facilities back into the general prison population. Systems are also providing more return-to-community transition services. In addition, there are more attempts to keep mentally ill individuals out of prison or jail in the first place, through more drug courts, mental health courts and veterans' courts.
But all of these efforts are relatively scattered and are costly; there is not a national initiative to coordinate these on a wide scale, says Fagan, adding that he's not sure there is a national will to push for these improvements.
"People will say we should be doing more, but if I were to say the house down the street would be an ideal halfway house, what's your neighborhood's response to that? It seems easier to lock people up than to help them reintegrate into the community — or to keep them in the community initially."
Even if all the committee's recommendations are enacted, says Haney, it will be many years before the United States loses its title of biggest incarcerator. "There will still be a considerable number of people in prison, even if our recommendations about mandatory minimums and so forth are followed — and those people need services. They have needs that need to be addressed so that their chances of surviving once they come out will be optimized."