Decades of mass incarceration have proven to be a costly and ineffective strategy to reduce crime, a groundbreaking report published Thursday found.
In fact, increased punishments and jailings have been declining in effectiveness for more than 30 years, according to the report, titled What Caused the Crime Decline? (pdf) and released by the Brennan Center for Justice.
Violent crime rates fell by more than 50 percent between 1991 and 2013, while property crime declined by 46 percent, according to FBI statistics. Yet between 1990 and 2009, the prison population in the U.S. more than doubled, jumping from 771,243 to over 1.6 million. While incarceration may have initially had a positive outcome on the crime rate, it has reached a point of diminishing returns, the researchers said during a press call Thursday.
Mass incarceration is "a tragedy," writes Nobel Prize winning economist Dr. Joseph Stiglitz in the foreword to the report. "With almost 1 in 100 American adults locked away behind bars, our incarceration rate is the world’s highest... nearly 40 percent of whom are African American. Yet lawmakers are slow to take action and public outrage is largely absent."
Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said Thursday that she hoped the report would "provide a wake-up call for the country regarding our incarceration policy."
Income growth and an aging population each had a greater effect on the decline in national crime rates than jailings, write the authors, Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Julia Bowling. Likewise, data-based policing techniques such as CompStat, which maps where crime takes place, has helped reduce rates in bigger areas such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Because CompStat relies on empirical data to identify crime, it is particularly effective in comparison with other, more controversial tactics such as broken windows, stop-and-frisk, and "hot spot" policing, which focuses resources on areas where law enforcement says crime is "more likely" to exist.
"It is difficult to study cause and effect of these tactics on a national level because each city and department defines and applies these tactics differently," the report states.
Declining alcohol consumption and "consumer confidence" also contributed to the crime drop.
Meanwhile, mass incarceration and tough-on-crime policies have had enormous social and fiscal consequences—from its $80 billion annual price tag to its myriad societal costs, including an increased risk of recidivism due to brutal conditions in prison and a lack of post-release reintegration opportunities. Capital punishment and right-to-carry gun laws also had no effect on decreasing crime rates.
Lou Downey, co-founder of the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, told Common Dreams that the phenomenon is "itself a crime," and that viewing it as a policy failure does not go far enough to address its core problems.
"It’s at the heart of a slow genocide unfolding against Black people," Downey said. "The problem is not that mass incarceration in the US is expensive or ineffective in reducing crime. Seeing it in these terms cover over, and condition people to view, what is itself is a crime as simply counterproductive."
The report concludes:
Public and political pressure to effectively fight crime and improve public safety has been used to justify mass incarceration despite the economic, human, and moral toll...
In times of shrinking budgets or economic prosperity, the government should be in the business of investing in and deploying policies that achieve their intended goals. This report offers lasting support that there is a continued need to rethink policies that are bad investments: costly, harmful to society, and now proven to have diminishing effectiveness to control crime.
"A year in prison can cost more than a year at Harvard," Stiglitz writes. "This is not a hallmark of a well-performing economy and society."
"How many people sit needlessly in prison when, in a more rational system, they could be contributing to our economy?" Stiglitz continues. "And, once out of prison, how many people face a lifetime of depressed economic prospects? When 1 in 28 children has a parent in prison, the cycle of poverty and unequal opportunity continues a tragic waste of human potential for generations."
Downey added, "A perspective that critiques US mass incarceration as simply one of 'not working,' like the argument that death rows are just too damn expensive... this feeds a morality that makes peace with vast, institutionalized brutality. Over the last 6 months in the wake of the unpunished police murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, millions of people tore off blinders and embraced a morality recognizing that 'Black Lives Matter.' People need to keep going there."