Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?

Last week I referenced that the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee was holding a hearing on the over incarceration problem in America.

More specifically I anticipated that the testimony of Dr. Glen Loury and Dr. Bruce Western of Brown and Harvard respectively would be worth listening to. And indeed it was.

From Loury:

First, I wish to emphasize that with the advent of the mass incarceration policy we have witnessed an historic expansion of coercive state power, deployed internally on a massive scale. Violent crime peaked in the early 1990s, and began what has proven to be a long, precipitous decline…

As a result of this policy, the American prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history. Never has a supposedly “free country” denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens.

As of December 2006, some two-and-one-quarter million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered, like an archipelago, across America’s urban and rural landscapes.

Incarceration is now being used in the United States on an unprecedented scale. We imprison at a far higher rate than any other industrial democracy in the world. We imprison at a higher rate than Russia or China, and vastly more than any of the countries in Europe.

And, it is costing us a veritable fortune. Spending on law enforcement and corrections at all levels of government now totals roughly a fifth of a trillion dollars per year. In constant dollars, this spending has more than quadrupled over the last quarter century.

From Western:

Three types of policies would help alleviate the social and economic effects of mass incarceration.

1) Congress should re-examine the large of number of collateral consequences limiting the access of ex-felons to Federal benefits and employment. Many restrictions such as limitations on educational, welfare, and housing benefits do not serve public safety, impede the reintegration of the formerly-incarcerated, and penalize family members. While restrictions on benefits or employment might be justified if they are closely linked to particular crimes, such restrictions should be strictly time-limited, given the strong pattern of criminal desistance with age.

2) Congress should support prisoner re-entry programs that provide transitional employment and other services. Well-designed programs have been found to improve employment and reduce recidivism. Research suggests that community-based re-entry programs should ideally be integrated with education and other programs in prison, and also provide housing, drug treatment, and health care to improve the job readiness of released-prisoners. Post-prison employment would be encouraged by passage of the Second Chance Act of 2007. Employer incentives can be promoted through expansions of the Work Opportunity Tax Credit and the Federal Bonding Program. Taken together, these three measures would provide an important first step to a comprehensive Federal re-entry policy.

3) Congress should support the establishment of criminal justice social impact panels in local jurisdictions that can evaluate unwarranted disparities in juvenile and adult incarceration. By assessing the link between socio-economic disparities in offending to disparities in incarceration, local social impact panels could identify and take steps to eliminate disproportionate incarceration in poor and minority communities. Social-impact panels could also be charged with assessing disparities that may arise under proposed sentencing reforms.

These snippets are literally the tip of the iceberg. Read the transcripts and spread the word that incarceration is not the solution to everything.

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Comments (3) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Cayla - October 30, 2007 2:12 PM

With all of the camera and monitering systems in place all throughout major and rural areas now I feel like I can't even take a sh**t without being monitered.
If america can be under constant watch like this all of the time why can't we even know what our government is up to?

Angel - March 4, 2009 3:57 PM

Excellent site and informative... I wish congressment and the president would read and take note. the stigma that follows incarceration plays a role in the increasing number of return offenders - this is one major cause of "career criminal" in the US. The GOVT should play a stronger role in ensuring equal opportunity to work for everyone.

JLo - March 13, 2010 12:36 PM

My husband has been in a New York prison for the last 18 years. First he is there illegally because a crimminal complaint was never filed in the lower courts, plus he did not do what they said he did. Justice in America, there is no Justice.It's a mob mentality. No one cares, no one ever will.

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