The US faces increasing global competition in a broad range of industries. However, there is one field of endeavor in which we continue to hold title to the undisputed claim of being the world leader, putting people in prison.
The report, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation, assess nearly every facet of America's "historically unprecedented and internationally unique" rise in incarceration since the 1970s. It synthesizes years of evidence on crime trends, on causes driving the growth in prisons, and on the consequences of all this imprisonment. It argues that the U.S. should revise its current criminal justice policies — including sentencing laws and drug enforcement — to significantly cut prison rates and scale back what's become the world's most punitive culture.
The tremendous increase in incarceration in the U.S. does not reflect the fact that the country has become substantially more criminal or violent over this time. The true explanation has more to do with politics and policy.California has been the most prominent example of this trend. Despite various efforts to expand prison capacity, it has been far outstripped by the growth in the prison population. The state has been in a running battle with the federal courts to reduce the over crowded conditions under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The general level of public anxiety about crime in the streets has been deeply conditioned by the political drum beating over the past 40 years. Politicians are fearful of the consequences of any actions that would allow them to be portrayed as soft on crime. Yet the same public does not want to pay taxes to build more prisons. California is by no means unusual among states. It's just the largest.
Since the 1970s, Congress and state legislatures have enacted a number of changes to prison and sentencing laws that have mandated prison time for lesser offenses and ensured longer sentences for violent crimes and repeat offenders. The "war on drugs" — a corollary to Lyndon Johnson's "war on crime" — also ensured that drug crimes received more attention from police and harsher punishment in courtrooms.
During the 1980s, Congress began to enact "mandatory minimum" laws for drug crimes and violent offenses. The 1990s brought "three strikes" laws in Congress and more than half of states (giving a third offense mandatory sentences of 25 years or more). "Truth-in-sentencing" laws also required offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Effectively, more people were going to jail, carrying with them longer sentences. And increasingly, they were serving almost all of that time.
There is an indisputable element of racism in the incarceration trends.
60% of the US prison population come from racial minorities. Blacks are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug crimes than whites. Studies of drug usage suggest that the rates of drug use are not significantly different for the two groups. Black men under 35 without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison than employed.
There is not much evidence to suggest that increased incarceration has done anything to reduce the incidence of crime. It really seems to be a peculiarly American political ritual that has a very tenuous connection to reality.