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3 reasons America still leads the world in imprisoning people

California had to refashion this gymnasium to house prisons after it ran out of room in its actual facilities.
California had to refashion this gymnasium to house prisons after it ran out of room in its actual facilities.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News

On Tuesday, a new Department of Justice report brought some mixed news: the imprisonment rate — that is, the number of people in prison as a percent of the population — is continuing to edge downward for the fifth year in a row, but the total prison population is growing again.

After decades of rising mass incarceration in the United States, the five-year downward trend is a big shift. It's a sign that various reforms at the federal and state level to reduce incarceration are starting to have an effect.

Yet many criminal justice experts say that there's still plenty of room to cut down even further on incarceration. The biggest reason that prisons have grown so much over the last few decades is that people are being sentenced to longer and longer terms — and evidence shows that longer sentences don't do anything to reduce crime. Instead, current incarceration levels make it harder for people to get good jobs when they leave prison, making them more likely to re-offend. So in order to get incarceration levels to the point where they're most efficient and effective, a lot of work still needs to be done.

In response to the Justice Department's report, various experts argued that mass incarceration remains a big problem in the United States — and that many recent reforms to cut down on imprisonment rates have only scratched the surface of what's possible or beneficial. Here are their three main points.

1) Many recent reforms benefit people who weren't going to prison anyway

Arizona jail inmates

Inmates in Arizona. (Paul Richards / AFP via Getty Images)

Experts said they support the past few years of policy reforms at the state and federal level to reduce incarceration, but none of them described the changes in sweeping terms. The most common descriptor was "modest."

"The states need to be more ambitious at the types of reform they're passing to reduce the population," says Brian Elderbroom, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. "The lesson here is there's a lot more work to be done."

One example of recent reforms is drug courts, which try to place drug offenders into rehabilitation programs instead of jail or prison. While these programs have had some success in some parts of the country, the evidence shows that, in their current form, they tend to benefit people who most likely weren't going to prison for very long — or at all — in the first place.

The broader problem is that state and federal reforms focus on low-level drug and property offenses, not violent crimes. Much of the prison population is made up of violent offenders. While it might be politically trickier to reduce prison sentences for violent criminals, evidence shows that the sentences being handed out now are too long to be effective.

"The lesson here is there's a lot more work to be done"

"If you look at who's in prison, it's increasingly people who have been sentenced with a violent offense," Elderbroom says. "These people are ineligible not only for reforms that divert them, such as drug courts, but for reforms that are aimed at reducing length of stay."

Experts say there should be reforms that let violent offenders, particularly those who are older and committed their crime decades ago, out early. The research indicates that people age out of crime, so letting them out of prison 10 or 20 years down the line might not pose a significant threat to public safety.

"While those people have committed serious crimes, in many respects their incarceration is often excessive," says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "The person locked up on armed robbery at 19 is not necessarily the same person when he turns 30 or 40."

To accomplish this, Mauer says state lawmakers would need to establish policies that make it so just about everyone — no matter what crime they were convicted of — can get parole or reduced sentences, through good behavior and evidence of rehabilitation. Policymakers could also take additional actions that relax or eliminate three-strike laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and other policies passed over the past three decades that force criminals to serve extremely long sentences.

This would present a dramatic shift in recent policy trends. According to the Sentencing Project, about one in nine US prisoners are currently serving a life sentence, and that rate has climbed over the past few decades. "Increasingly, those prison terms have overwhelmed any reductions we see on the lower levels of the scale," Mauer says.

life sentences

(The Sentencing Project)

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says that, along with the additional reforms to sentencing laws, policymakers should ensure that prisoners receive services that make it easier for them to successfully reintegrate into society.

"They're going to require medical services at the very least, but also job training, job placement services, and even education," Rosenfeld says. "There are services that have to go along the mere supervision when people are released from prison."

2) The imprisonment rate drop is really small compared to the overall drop in crime

Illinois prison

A prison in Illinois. (David Greedy / Getty Images News)

America's imprisonment rate dropped by roughly 1 percent over the past decade, but the violent crime rate dropped by more than 20 percent during the same period.

Proponents of mass incarceration at one point argued that locking so many people up was needed to help fight crime, so falling crime justified high incarceration. But there's little correlation between the two measures: over the past few decades, the imprisonment rate seems to have climbed regardless of fluctuations in crime rates.

incarceration vs. crime

(National Research Council)

"There doesn't appear to be a very strong connection between crime rates and incarceration rates," Elderbroom says, pointing to Florida and New York as two examples of "different trajectories." "Both have reduced crime significantly, … yet they have two very different stories when it comes to their prison population: New York's is down significantly, while Florida's continues to rise."

Many experts feel that the violent crime drop should be an opportunity for prison reforms to go much further.

"With such a significant decline in crime, … one would think we should have seen a much more substantial reduction [in imprisonment]," Mauer says, "but that's not what we're seeing."

In contrast, Mauer points to the juvenile justice system's trajectory over the past decade. Recent reports from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found the population in the juvenile justice system dropped by 41 percent between 2001 and 2011, which tracks with decreases in youth crime in the same period. Once those kind of proportional drops show up in the criminal justice system, Mauer says he'll be more confident real progress is occurring.

3) California is driving most of the national decline in prison population

California prison

A prison in California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News)

About 70 percent of the state prison population decline over the past few years was driven by California's reduction, which a court mandate forced the state to carry out due to what it called unconstitutional conditions in California's prisons. But after two years of big drops — a 9 percent drop between 2010 and 2011, and a 10 percent drop between 2011 and 2012 — California saw an uptick in its prison population between 2012 and 2013. Unsurprisingly, that reversal had a big impact on the national trend.

California's recent story gets to a major problem when looking at the nationwide numbers: even though they can provide a useful indicator of where the country is generally going, they can also oversimplify what's going on. Even during the past few years of overall declines, around half the states — including some that passed sentencing reforms — still had occasional year-over-year increases in their prison population.

"I think we've definitely given too much weight to national numbers in the past few years," Elderbroom explains. "The national numbers are symbolically important, and there's been a lot of reason to be hopeful over the past three years as we've seen these reductions. But the number of people in prison is inherently a function of policy and practice in each state."

In 2013, for example, some of the biggest states — California, Texas, and Florida — drove the increase in overall population, even as other states — New York, Hawaii, and Colorado — continued to see a decline in their numbers.

Still, experts predict that further reforms to reduce imprisonment will come — as long as the violent crime rate doesn't begin to rise again. After decades of rising prison populations, they seem to think that America is over its mass incarceration phase and all the costs that come with it.

"There's much more political space to consider reforms now," Mauer says. "What these new numbers show us is that unless we think more broadly about the issue, it's likely that any decline will continue to be relatively modest. If we want to really address mass incarceration in a substantial way, we have to think much bigger than this."

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