Mass Incarceration: What’s The Reality Of Politicians’ Promises?

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As the presidential campaign heats up, one topic expected to attract major attention is the need for criminal justice “reform” designed to significantly ease the problem of “mass incarceration.”

One candidate has already pledged to cut our prison population by more than one-quarter–over half a million inmates–within four years of being elected.

The picture drawn is one of hundreds of thousands of hapless unfortunates locked up for inconsequential, nonviolent offenses that make the US the international leader in imprisonment.

But what are the realities of prison population numbers–and of readily reducing them to any meaningful extent?

A Washington, DC-based think tank called the Urban Institute offers some sobering findings.

The Institute has created a Prison Population Forecaster that uses data from 15 states, representing nearly 40% of the national prison population. This projection tool allows researchers to plug in various potential policy changes and estimate what the impact would be on the body count behind bars.

Some of their conclusions are reported in a paper called “Reducing Mass Incarceration Requires Far-Reaching Reforms,” posted on the Institute’s website. Click here to go there. Lead author is Ryan King, a senior fellow in the Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

“After nearly 40 years of unabated growth,” roughly 2.2 million people are currently locked up in prison or jail in the US, according to the report.

Politicians and activists are fond of creating the impression that prisons are overburdened with “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenders. But King’s team points out that cutting drug admissions in half (an “incredibly ambitious” goal) would shrink the prison population by just 7% by the end of 2021 and reducing sentences by 50% “would yield similar results.”

About 1 in 6 offenders in state prison is incarcerated for a drug crime, “and far fewer are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses, such as possession,” King writes. “Even if every person in state prison for a drug offense were released today, mass incarceration would persist.”

That means that tackling mass incarceration “will require reducing admissions or lengths of stay for other offenses,” King explains. Sending 50% fewer people to prison for property offenses, including burglary, theft, and fraud, “would have 1.5 times the impact of reducing drug admissions by the same amount.”

Admissions for all nonviolent crimes would have to be halved in order to cut the prison population by 23% by 2021. If you cut in half the number of people imprisoned for violating probation or parole, another 14% reduction could be achieved.

But–the alarming bottom line–“dramatically reducing the national prison population requires addressing the hard stuff,” King writes. That is, cutting admissions and length of sentences for violent offenses, which account for more than half of inmates currently in state prisons.

“[T]o make a real dent in mass incarceration will require us to fundamentally rethink whom we send to prison and how long they stay,” King writes. Even if total admissions for all types of offenses were cut in half or the lengths of stay were halved, the collective prison population would be reduced by less than 40%, King’s paper concludes. And those scenarios, he says, “are far beyond the scope of reforms being discussed.”

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