Editorial Board | The New York Times | May 24, 2014
For more than a decade, researchers across multiple disciplines have been issuing reports on the widespread societal and economic damage caused by America’s now-40-year experiment in locking up vast numbers of its citizens. If there is any remaining disagreement about the destructiveness of this experiment, it mirrors the so-called debate over climate change.
In both cases, overwhelming evidence shows a crisis that threatens society as a whole. In both cases, those who study the problem have called for immediate correction.
Several recent reports provide some of the most comprehensive and compelling proof yet that the United States “has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” and that mass incarceration itself is “a source of injustice.”
That is the central conclusion of a two-year, 444-page study prepared by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the Justice Department and others. The report highlights many well-known statistics: Since the early 1970s, the nation’s prison population has quadrupled to 2.2 million, making it the world’s biggest. That is five to 10 times the incarceration rate in other democracies.
On closer inspection the numbers only get worse. More than half of state prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes, and one of every nine, or about 159,000 people, are serving life sentences — nearly a third of them without the possibility of parole.
While politicians were responding initially to higher crime rates in the late 1960s, this “historically unprecedented” growth is primarily the result of harsher sentencing that continued long after crime began to fall. These include lengthy mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses that became popular in the 1980s, and “three strikes” laws that have put people away for life for stealing a pair of socks.
And even though the political climate has shifted in recent years, many politicians continue to fear appearing to be “soft on crime,” even when there is no evidence that imprisoning more people has reduced crime by more than a small amount.
Meanwhile, much of the world watches in disbelief. A report by Human Rights Watch notes that while prison should generally be a last resort, in the United States “it has been treated as the medicine that cures all ills,” and that “in its embrace of incarceration, the country seems to have forgotten just how severe a punishment it is.”
The severity is evident in the devastation wrought on America’s poorest and least educated, destroying neighborhoods and families. From 1980 to 2000, the number of children with fathers in prison rose from 350,000 to 2.1 million. Since race and poverty overlap so significantly, the weight of our criminal justice experiment continues to fall overwhelmingly on communities of color, and particularly on young black men.
After prison, people are sent back to the impoverished places they came from, but are blocked from re-entering society. Often they cannot vote, get jobs, or receive public benefits like subsidized housing — all of which would improve their odds of staying out of trouble. This web of collateral consequences has created what the National Academy of Sciences report calls “a highly distinct political and legal universe for a large segment of the U.S. population.”
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All of this has come at an astounding economic cost, as tallied by a report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project — $80 billion a year in direct corrections expenses alone, and more than a quarter-trillion dollars when factoring in police, judicial and legal services.
Many of the solutions to this crisis are clear, even if the political path to them often is not: Reduce sentence lengths substantially. Provide more opportunities for rehabilitation inside prison. Remove the barriers that keep people from rejoining society after they are released from prison. Use alternatives to imprisonment for nonviolent offenders, drug addicts and the mentally ill. Release elderly or ill prisoners, who are the least likely to re-offend. And since more than 95 percent of inmates are eventually released, rate prisons on their success in keeping former inmates from returning — which as many as two-thirds currently do. Some states have already taken smart and effective steps in these directions, but there is a long way to go.
The insanity of the situation is plain to people across the political spectrum, from Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who agree on the urgent need for change. The research is in, and it is uncontestable. The American experiment in mass incarceration has been a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster. It cannot end soon enough.