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Time - December 2016

... As America became the world’s number one jailer, crime plummeted dramatically. Today, the overall crime rate is half of what it was at its peak in 1991. Violent crime is about where it was in 1970. Property crime is at 1967 levels.

Many may assume that this decrease in crime was caused by the increase in incarceration. But research shows incarceration had a limited impact on the massive drop in crime.

“When the incarceration rate is high, the marginal crime reduction gains from further increases tend to be lower, because the offender on the margin between incarceration and an alternative sanction tends to be less serious,” according to the Brookings Institute’s Hamilton Project. “In other words, the crime fighting benefits of incarceration diminish with the scale of the prison population.” A 2015 Brennan Center study came to the same conclusion.

Although there is some relationship between increased incarceration and lower crime, at a certain point, locking up additional people is not an effective crime control method, especially when imprisoning one person costs $31,000 a year.

Building on State Successes

The current sentencing regime was largely a knee-jerk reaction to crime, not grounded in any scientific rationale. While it may have seemed like a reasonable approach to protect the public, a comprehensive examination of the data proves it is ineffective at that task. Worse yet, it is also inequitable, placing a disproportionate burden on communities of color. Whether viewed through a lens of justice, fairness, public safety, cost, or victims’ rights, the U.S. prison system unnecessarily warehouses millions of people.

There are some state models for success. Over the last decade, a majority of states reduced their prison populations while cutting crime. From 1999 to 2012, New Jersey and New York reduced their prison populations by about 30%, while crime fell faster than it did nationally. Texas decreased imprisonment and crime by more than 20% during the same period. California cut its prison population by 27%, and violence in the state also fell more than the national average. These state reforms are excellent steps in the right direction. They provided modest fixes and short term relief. Although these reforms are heartening, we need more wholesale systemic changes to strike a blow to mass incarceration.

... We first applied this analysis to people convicted of lower-level offenses. We found that for an estimated 364,000 lower-level offenders (25% of the nationwide prison population), alternatives to prison are likely more effective.

We then applied these factors to prisoners who were serving serious crimes. They may warrant prison, but do they really need such lengthy sentences?

Research shows long sentences aren’t very effective. A 2007 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that prison stays longer than 20 months had “close to no effect” on reducing commission of certain crimes upon release. Other studies show prison often has a “criminogenic” effect, meaning that imprisonment can actually lead people to commit more crimes after release. ...
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