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FSU Criminology Researcher Finds Mass Incarceration Means Less Public Safety at Great Cost

December 12, 2014

Filed Under: Faculty, Research

In recent decades, America entered an era of mass incarceration and now leads the world in imprisonment. The result has been mixed. Mass incarceration may have contributed to some reduction in crime, but the evidence more clearly points to increased recidivism and to collateral harms to children, families and communities, all at great expense.

States understandably now seek new, more cost-efficient approaches to addressing crime and punishing criminals. However, they face a problem. The continued growth in prisons, as well as in probation and parole populations, has created a tidal force that all but precludes large-scale investment in other approaches to public safety.

Nationally, prisons house more than 1.5 million individuals, an increase of 380 percent since 1980. Correctional populations during this time period rose from roughly 2 million to 7 million. Taxpayer obligations necessarily followed suit. Spending on corrections increased four-fold, from about $15 billion to $50 billion (adjusting for inflation). Total criminal-justice-system spending increased even more, rising from $36 billion to more than $200 billion.

Once prisons are built, they stay built and typically operate at or near full capacity. Because more than three-fourths of released prisoners will be rearrested within five years of release, prisons enjoy a steady supply of new admissions even when crime rates decline.

Probation violators and recidivists serve as a backstop to ensure that prison beds stay occupied. How? Prosecutors turn to incarceration as a punishment for these groups when bed space is available even though, in the past, community-based sanctions typically were employed.

The costs of supporting the incarceration tidal force go well beyond operational expenditures. They include the potential for more, rather than less, crime. Although several studies have found that prison growth may reduce crime rates, scholars remain uncertain about this effect. At the same time, studies increasingly have found that incarceration may increase crime in disadvantaged communities and worsen recidivism.

Additional costs cast doubt on the merits of a primarily punitive approach to sanctioning offenders. For example, parental incarceration can adversely affect children and contribute to delinquency, educational and health problems, and poor transitions into adolescence and adulthood. “Invisible punishments,” such as barriers to housing, employment and treatment, can make re-entry especially challenging for ex-prisoners and their families. Like returning veterans, prisoners struggle to re-integrate with their family and friends. Large-scale re-entry of these individuals into highly disadvantaged communities creates further harms, including the potential for higher crime rates and unemployment.

Any solution requires that punishment occur. But the punishment should fit the crime, increase public safety, and do so at the least cost. What we need is a more diversified portfolio of sanctions that places greater emphasis on prevention, community-based punishment and rehabilitation.

Research consistently finds that alternatives to incarceration may reduce crime more effectively. These include investment in intensive probation, intermediate sanctions, rehabilitative programming, treatment, evidence-based approaches to risk assessment, and crime prevention efforts built on careful analysis of the distribution and causes of crime.

Should a balanced portfolio of policies include prison terms? Absolutely. However, shorter and more certain terms of incarceration likely would create a greater deterrent effect and avoid many of the harms associated with imprisonment.

The mass-incarceration tidal force will continue without concerted, bipartisan efforts to enact systems change. Tinkering around the edges will not suffice. Promising advances, such as the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Justice Reinvestment Initiative, illustrate the benefits of research-based approaches and policymakers working together. The JRI model grounds policy changes in discussions among bipartisan work groups, who review research on the drivers of crime and corrections and the most cost-effective strategies to reduce them.

A safer and more just society can exist. But it will not result from a conservative or a liberal response to crime. It will result from a balanced, evidence-based approach that does not avoid politics but rather rises above it.

Daniel P. Mears is the Mark C. Stafford professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the author, with Joshua C. Cochran, of “Prisoner Reentry in the Era of Mass Incarceration.”