Crossposted also on my personal blog, which according to Stephen Hawking often interacts with black holes.
Part I: A Rise to Mass Incarceration
The United States may imprison a record number of its own citizens compared to the rest of the world, both in terms of total number and per capita (p. 4) [PDF], however this wasn't always the case. The US once had a very steady rate of imprisonment, that has radically changed in the late 20th and early 21st century- replaced by year after year of continued growth in inmate populations across the nation. This well-known graph will tell the story:
(image courtesy of "United States incarceration rate," Wikipedia. Statistics from Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS))
The spike begins roughly around the late 1970s, and continues upward unabated. Two things evolve in tandem during this period- the "War on Drugs" declared earlier in the decade by President Richard Nixon, and later as the use of incarceration begins to increase, the beginning of the for-profit prison industry, led by groups such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). As The Sentencing Project [PDF] explains-
The 1980s, though, ushered in a new era of prison privatization. With a burgeoning prison population resulting from the “war on drugs” and increased use of incarceration, prison overcrowding and rising costs became increasingly problematic for local, state, and federal governments. In response to this expanding criminal justice system, private business interests saw an opportunity for expansion, and consequently, private-sector involvement in prisons moved from the simple contracting of services to contracting for the complete management and operation of entire prison.
The entrance of private corporations to the prison business has led to the development of a prison lobby, a system of money for access and contracts, and an expansion of the role of groups like the CCA into things such as detaining immigrants. For better information, please read diaries but such Kos illumnaries as Bob Sloan and specific diaries like this one.
What I'm here to discuss more in-depth is an academic paper published recently that challenges the fundamental idea of mass imprisonment- that sending anybody but high-risk, extremely violent criminals to prison yields benefits in terms of recidivism and serving as a useful deterrent.
Part II: The Failure of Prison
In the September 2011 edition of The Prison Journal, and published online in July, the article "Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism : The High Cost of Ignoring Science" takes what evidence there is to be had (though they do admit it is scant and admonishes others for making bold assumptions) and shows that the actual results of imprisonment are not useful to the community as a whole. In fact, compared to "non-custodial" options like probation, house arrest, monitoring, fines, and service, they actually have in some cases increased recidivism.
The authors- Francis Cullen, Cheryl Jonson, and Daniel Nagin- come out and state that:
"We recognize that sometimes offenders will be sentenced to prison because the sheer heinousness of their crimes leaves little choice. But the mass use of
imprisonment also has been widely justified on the grounds that locking up offenders is a uniquely effective strategy for protecting public safety. This assertion deserves to be scrutinized." (50S)
They cull together five major studies of data done over a long time period, and in their introduction they state that "having pulled together the best available evidence, we have been persuaded that prisons do not reduce recidivism more than noncustodial sanctions." (50S) They do in some cases talk about what criminologists call the 'crimogenic' nature of incarceration- that it hardens people and through a variety of ways increases their disposition towards perpetrating crimes in the future. I will address this a bit in the conclusion.
The authors state that sentences have reached a point where they have reached their maximum returns in terms of general deterrent- in other words, making them any longer will not serve much more of a purpose, no matter what "tough on crime" politicians will claim otherwise.
The recidivism problem rears its ugly head when compared head-to-head with probation, especially for more minor crimes. As one of studies analyzed showed "being sent to prison was associated with increased recidivism and that those incarcerated reoffended more quickly than those placed on probation. Furthermore, they discovered that the criminogenic effect of prison was especially high for drug offenders, who were 5 to 6 times more likely to recidivate than those placed on probation." (55-56S) A system of effective counseling and drug testing seems to trump over simply locking up these (mostly non-violent) drug offenders, who often have ready access to drugs in prison, as well as their exposure to violence and often vicious gang activity.
There is a foundational belief among politicians and corrections officials that mass imprisonment works, despite the fact that "nobody has had a firm idea of whether placing offenders behind bars makes [offenders] more or less likely to recidivate." (59S) There is such a limited amount of data that only limited conclusions can be drawn, but there is certainly very little to suggest that in most cases imprisonment is an effective deterrent- despite the fact that the United States has extremely harsh sentencing laws. Most data, to the contrary, seems to indicate that options besides prison yield equal to better results.
Mandatory minimums have drastically increased prison populations while stripping power from judges, who can use context to give non-custodial punishments that the offenses may merit. The increasing amount of offenses that merit imprisonment due the War on Drugs and the sentencing for drug offenses and gang crimes have kept prisons full and led to yearly growth in total prisoners, even as the crime rate slid downward in most areas during the 1990's. And the rise in federal imprisonment due to the detainment of non-citizens (p. 3-4) has both created a prison population that was not once present, and provided a boon to a private prison industry that has lost power with the states.
So that is the legacy of mass imprisonment. There are more people incarcerated year after year, though there is scant evidence to support it as a policy or as an effective deterrent.