After decades of supercharged incarceration rates, our bloated prison system is straining under its own weight, and policy makers are finally being forced to deal with the need to shrink it.
According to a study last year by The Pew Center on the States entitled “One in 100: Behind bars in America 2008,” the prison population of the United States has nearly quadrupled over the last 25 years while the nation’s population has grown by less than a third.
We now have more inmates per capita than any of the 36 European countries with the largest inmate populations, and our total number of inmates is more than all the inmates in those countries combined.
This comes at a cost. According to a report published last month by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit research group, $1 in every $15 from states’ general funds is now spent on corrections. That doesn’t work in a recession.
Much of the rise in the prison population was because of draconian mandatory sentencing laws that are illogical — sociologically and economically.
On the sociological side, as the criminal justice expert Joel Dvoskin of the University of Arizona explained to me, data overwhelmingly support the idea that locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders makes them worse, not better.A study from a decade ago that was published in the journal American Psychologist put it this way: “Department of corrections data show that about a fourth of those initially imprisoned for nonviolent crimes are sentenced a second time for committing a violent offense. Whatever else it reflects, this pattern highlights the possibility that prison serves to transmit violent habits and values rather than to reduce them.”