If you want to end mass incarceration in America, you're probably going to have to ask yourself an uncomfortable question: How much should the country and states reduce their punishment for violent crimes?
The Urban Institute analyzed the prison populations in 15 states, compiling the data in an interactive infographic that lets you choose how to reduce the prison population in these places. It shows, quite convincingly, that cutting nonviolent drug offenses — a focus of President Barack Obama and many legislators around the country — isn't enough if America wants to peel back from its status as the world's leader in incarceration.
Even as someone who has written about this issue before, I was surprised by how effective cutting prison sentences for violent offenders is compared with diminishing penalties for nonviolent drug offenders. According to the Urban Institute, reducing sentences for all drug offenses by 50 percent would only trim the prison population by 7 percent more than doing nothing by December 2021. In comparison, cutting the length of prison sentences for violent offenses by 50 percent would get a 16 percent reduction — more than twice as much as cutting drug offenses would accomplish.
The results demonstrate a basic point: Drug offenders make up a small portion (about 16 percent in 2012) of the state prison systems, while violent offenders make up more than half of state prisons, where roughly 86 percent of the US prison population resides.
Still, cutting prison sentences for all nonviolent offenses by 50 percent would have a big impact, lowering the prison population by 23 percent. But this includes nonviolent offenses like burglary, theft, and fraud that produce direct victims — someone whose iPhone was stolen, for example — while nonviolent drug offenses are a popular target for reform because they're not thought to directly victimize someone.
But the overall calculations show that policymakers are likely going to have to make some uncomfortable decisions if they want to eliminate mass incarceration: It's going to require curbing sentences not just for nonviolent drug offenses — as is politically popular now — but for nonviolent offenses that produce victims and violent crimes, as well.
How can policymakers do this without risking public safety? One idea is to make greater use of house arrest, probation, or parole instead of incarceration, which would still keep convicts under the government's watch. And just reducing prison sentences for violent crimes could work, too — since, as research shows, people tend to age out of crime, so letting them out of prison earlier likely wouldn't increase crime rates.
But it's likely some older inmates will come out of prison and commit more crimes if they don't get any support. That's why some reformers, like Mark Kleiman of New York University's Marron Institute, have proposed a "graduated reentry" system that eases inmates from prison to the outside world through strong oversight and incentives. For example, an inmate might be allowed more luxury time or autonomy if he can obtain and sustain a job for six months. This has two big benefits for the inmate: He's doing things — like keeping a job — that will help him get a foothold in the real world, and he'll learn how the real world works after so much time locked away. (Supporters of this concept acknowledge it's new and will need changes if it's implemented, but the first step, they say, is trying it out.)
For now, lawmakers seem comfortable focusing on nonviolent drug offenses as a tactic to reduce mass incarceration. But as criminal justice reformers call for lowering America's prison population by 50 percent over the next 10 years, lawmakers may feel the pressure to act — and it's going to involve some difficult choices.