Crime in America.Net staff
We have been in and out of prisons hundreds of times. You can’t walk out of a prison without feeling that they are massive wastes of humanity. Prisons are overcrowded and lack services that most offenders need to survive in the outside world.
Prisons are incredibly expensive and most states are trying to find a way to better manage or reduce prison populations and avoid building new facilities. They have no choice; the vast majority of states are deep in debt with no relief in sight.
But the remarkable thing about the American prison system is the fact that, against all odds, it keeps on growing. It’s true that the rate of growth is slowing and some states have reduced prison populations, but as a whole they grow never-the-less.
There are hundreds of reputable organizations that protest the growth of prisons and none that advocate growth, yet they keep on growing.
The “anti-prison” organizations will state that the length of incarceration does little to nothing about recidivism (the return to prison) and they are correct. They state that prisons are inhumane places where inmates become better criminals (both are debatable).
Anti-prison advocates state that America over-incarcerates and that American prisons have the highest rate of incarceration in the world (both true). The Pew Center on the States suggests that more than one in 100 adults in America are in jail or prison.
Then why does America continue to build prisons?
It’s pretty simple; they do it because the public demands it. People have a simple sense of justice; you do the crime–you do the time.
But the primary factor is that the person incarcerated cannot harm anyone else during the period of incarceration.
We are very shortsighted for not providing a complete array of services to inmates to help them with their mental health and drug issues and their educational and vocational deficiencies and their lack of good decision making and anger management skills.
These services could reduce recidivism up to 20 percent, and 20 percent of 700,000 released offenders every year could prevent endless crimes and save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, but most of the focus remains on building more prisons and incarcerating more people.
Does massive incarceration reduce crime?
Time magazine recently produced a comprehensive overview titled “What’s Behind America’s Falling Crime Rate.” What was startling about Time’s coverage was the following:
“In his book Why Crime Rates Fell, Tufts University sociologist John Conklin concluded that up to half of the improvement was due to a single factor: more people in prison (emphasis added). The U.S. prison population grew by more than half a million during the 1990s and continued to grow, although more slowly, in the next decade. Go back half a century: as sentencing became more lenient in the 1960s and ’70s, the crime rate started to rise. When lawmakers responded to the crime wave by building prisons and mandating tough sentences, the number of prisoners increased and the number of crimes fell.” See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1963761,00.html
Earlier research from the Pew Center on the States put the figure at no more than 25 percent; “The Crime Drop in America includes two papers, by Richard Rosenfeld and William Spelman, that used very different analytic approaches to estimate the effect of incarceration on the 1990s crime drop, and both estimated that incarceration contributed about 25 percent to that drop (emphasis added)”.
With the research from Tufts University sociologist John Conklin in Time, we reopen the debate about incarceration from the standpoint of efficiency. If Time Magazine is correct, and we really cannot provide a concrete explanation for the considerable reductions in crime over the last two decades beyond incarceration, then it seems that prison construction will continue.
Crime control is necessary for functioning schools and communities and for economic development. It’s necessary for the well-being of every American citizen.
If there are alternatives to incarceration that produce 50 percent reductions in crime, it’s time for advocates to prove their effectiveness. We wish them well and god-speed, but crime control is a necessary ingredient in virtually everything we do to become a prosperous society.
No one advocates for prisons yet they grow. It’s a sad commentary for many reasons, but, according to Time, a necessary part of a safer society.
Crime in America.Net staff.