Now the latest national study, this one from PEW, "Public Safety Performance Project", shows the extraordinary costs and questionable crime reduction benefits of continued reliance on increasing incarceration to manage the problem of crime in the U.S.
The facts are easy to state although hard to swallow: the U.S. has the greatest number of offenders incarcerated--and the highest rate of incarceration--than any country in the world. Not surprisingly, we also spend more money on prisoners and prisons than any other country in the world.
Second, our incarceration rate is increasing, not because of increasing crime rates (crime has been declining for some time now) but because of changes in laws requiring that more offenders spend greater lengths of time incarcerated. Moreover, this rate is projected to continue increasing dramatically.
Third, the recidivism or crime level of released prisoners in the U.S. continues to be very high; prison is not decreasing the likelihood of prisoners repeating the same or other crimes.
Simultaneous with these phenomenal increases in incarcerated populations and absence of desired effects is an equally large long-term loss in support for alternative nonincarcerative programs and services that might prevent crime or its causes in local communities. This is a direct and indirect result of the transfer of funds from state and local government to incarcerate federal, state and local prisoners. The consequence is "lost opportunities" to manage programs in alternative ways.
As this report notes, there is a great need for legislators to recognize policies and programs that will reduce recidivism and which do not mean increased incarceration costs. A big problem is that policy makers may simply be unaware that programs exist to reduce recidivism without incarceration. We know that locally politicians are afraid to be perceived as "soft on crime" if they do not support more prison or be "tough" on crime.
Perhaps the greatest myth driving the race to incarcerate (no pun intended since African American and Hispanic populations are greatly overrepresented in prisons) is that prisons are the primary or major cause of reduced crime in the U.S., which is not true. This study shows that there is no one-to-one correspondance between the rate of incarceration and reduction in crime: indeed, in some periods of increased incarceration crime goes up and others it goes down. The report looks at these and other data and concludes that the relationship between incarceration and crime reduction is extremely complex.
It is plainly obvious that major changes need to come about in the U.S. approach to managing its crime problem. Where do we begin with the health care crisis, the imminent effects of global warming, and other major issues facing our society if we dump enormous sums of money into the ineffective black holes (no pun intended) of prisons that we are unable to address these issues?