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Session Recap: Prison Boom: Causes, Consequences, and Policy

November 8, 2014 09:00 AM

By Belem Lamas, University of Southern California and Portia Allen-Kyle, Rutgers University

At the 2014 Fall Research Conference, Bruce Western, Harvard University; Craig Haney, University of Santa Cruz; and Lawrence Mead, New York University presented in a session entitled Prison Boom: Causes, Consequences, and Policy. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Western, Haney, and Mead looked to answer the following questions:

  • What changes in U.S. society and public policy drove the rise in incarceration rates?
  • What consequences have these changes had for crime rates?
  • What effects does incarceration have on those in confinement; on their families and children; on the neighborhoods and communities from which they come and to which they return; and on the economy, politics, structure, and culture of the U.S. society?
  • What are the implications for public policy of the evidence on causes and effects of high levels of incarceration?

Haney started the panel by stating that after four decades, from the 1920s to the early 1970s, the rate of incarceration in the U.S. increased more than four times. The U.S. is an outlier in its incarceration rates, when compared to other countries around the globe: the U.S. incarceration rate is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other liberal democracies. Prisons in the U.S. are overcrowded, causing prisoners to move from sleeping in one cell with another prisoner to sleeping in gymnasiums with several prisoners. Mental hospitals have become more depopulated, prisons are decreasing their programming and classes from little to nothing at all, and there has been an increase in solitary confinement as a form of institutional control to monitor behavior of prisoners. Since the 1980s, the U.S. has adopted mandatory guidelines, expanded prison sentences, increased drug arrests, and harshly sentenced drug crimes. In the 1990s, longer sentences were set particularly for violent crimes and repeat offenders. Hence, growth of state prison population from 1980-2010 is explained roughly in equal proportion by harsher policies and longer sentencing.

Haney discussed many trends in incarceration over the past 40 years, noting that the growth in the prison population is, “unprecedented and internationally unique.” In response to increases in crime rates and growing concern about crime, he explained that the policy and legislative response was to increase mandatory and minimum sentencing, increase enforcement and harsher sentences for drug offenders, and to lengthen the sentences for violent crimes and repeat offenders. He then laid out four principles of good governance that would curb incarceration: proportionality, parsimony, citizenship, and social justice. Specifically, Haney mentioned the report as suggesting that the U.S. revisit its sentencing policy, prison policy, and social policy in order to address and reduce incarceration rates.

The racial disparity in incarceration is alarming. Race, ethnicity, and education has a relationship with imprisonment in America. According to Haney, the largest buildup has been in poor minority men. Of those behind bars in 2011, about 60 percent were minorities (858,000 backs and 464,000 Hispanics). African American men are more likely to have served time in prison than to have completed a 4-year degree.

According to Western, the concluding observations included:

  • Rise in incarceration rates resulted from a grand transformation of criminal justice policy.
  • Evidence of positive effects (crime reduction) and negative effects (socioeconomic damage in poor communities) was present, yet uncertain.
  • If a major policy change did not clearly yield benefits, and may have large and unwanted social costs, then a re-examination of the policy is warranted.
  • Finally, don't underestimate the importance of correlation; punishment is almost entirely concentrated in a highly disadvantages population.

Western stated that data shortcomings were in part due to the fact that as incarceration rates grew, prisons became more closed to researchers limiting different levels of understanding of: trends in prison programming, the prevalence of violence, measures of medical care, and the extent of solitary confinement.

Western also mentioned the varieties of evidence in that the interdisciplinary nature of the committee required a multi-causal discussion of the historical origins. The shortcomings of the data and the difficulty of specifically addressing the conditions of confinement was also a challenge. The last issue he mentioned was causal inference and the difficulty to tell the direction of the relationship on crime and incarceration, as well as risk factors, in general.

Lastly, Haney left off stating that America has lost sight of some guiding principles: proportionality, parsimony, citizenship, and social justice. Criminal offenses should be sentenced in proportion to their seriousness. The period of confinement should be sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing policy. The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one's fundamental status as a member of society. Ideally, prisons should be instruments of justice; as such, their collective effect should be to promote and not undermine society's aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources, and opportunities.

This session gave a comprehensive look into the complications of the explanations and implications of the growth in incarceration rates. As the panelists noted at the end, there are specific research needs that should be addressed to better understand the phenomenon of incarceration, but it is also important to look at the effect of politics and better alternatives to current policy.


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