Prison Boom, Economic Bust

As punitive as Americans can afford to be


| Web Special: November, 2009


As taxpayers spend an estimated $60 billion on corrections each year, cash-strapped states are looking to save some money by reducing the number of people behind bars. That could mean more rehabilitation programs and less punitive sentencing. As Nancy Lavigne of the Urban Institute told the American Prospect, “Americans are as punitive as they can afford to be.”

The United States leads the world in the number of people in prison—an estimated 2.29 million people, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies. For every 100,000 people in the United States, there are some 756 people in prison, which is also the highest rate in the world. China, our closest competitor, has an estimated 1.57 million sentenced prisoners (though they have another 850,000 people in "administrative detention"), with a comparatively paltry 119 prisoners for every 100,000 people.

Over the past 4 decades, there has been “tectonic shift” in U.S. incarceration rates, according to Steven Raphael, co-editor of the book Do Prisons Make Us Safer? ,like nothing that has ever happened before in this country or any other.” Starting in the 1970s, the government began using prisons more frequently and putting people there for longer.

The driving force behind this prison population boom isn't actually the criminals, it's the policies that put them behind bars. According to Raphael’s research, some 85 percent of the shift can be attributed to policy changes. In particular, the United States has been increasing its use of prisons to punish drug offenders and parole violators. Raphael’s data suggest that the United States is locking up more people who are less of a danger to society, which decreases the marginal effect of the incarceration. In other words, more people, many of them who wouldn’t likely commit more crimes, are being locked up for longer. That makes the average effectiveness of the incarcerations lower.

Raphael is calling for a fundamental rethinking of the way prisons are used in the United States, including which crimes are worthy of incarceration. He also believes we should reconsider our parole structure, which tends to throw too many people back in jail for minor offenses.

People are rethinking corrections in the United States, but the driving force isn’t morality. It’s money. Adam Serwer reported for the American Prospect on a “a nationwide shift in corrections policy toward rehabilitation and re-entry”  that’s motivated by shrinking state budgets. There are many reasons why states should start locking fewer people up, and making sure they don’t end up back in prison. Saving taxpayers money is just one of them.






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