Since 1979, the U.S. prison system has ballooned out of control. We now have the highest rate of incarceration in the world — 716 for every 100,000 residents. Minnesota has followed the trend. Our prison population went from less than 2,500 in 1978 to 10,000 in 2011, according to the Prison Policy Initiative’s analysis of Bureau of Justice statistics. That’s a change from about 50 people per 100,000 to almost 200 per 100,000 — much lower than the national rate, but still higher than the rates of all European countries except Russia and Azerbaijan.
What are your chances of going to prison? Pretty good, if you’re a black male. Nationally, about one in five black men will end up serving prison time by age 30-34, according to the Boston Globe. That’s more than double the rate in 1979, and compares to four percent of white males.
In Minnesota, African Americans and Native Americans are imprisoned at rates more than ten times greater than the rate for whites. Hispanics are imprisoned at a rate more than four times that of whites.
Race is not the only risk factor. If you’re a high school dropout, your chances of going to prison are high. Some 15 percent of white male high school dropouts will be in prison by age 30-34, according to the Boston Globe. For black male high school dropouts, that climbs to an appalling 69 percent.
The big prison numbers result not from more violence or even from more crime, but from mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses, mandatory minimum sentences leading to longer sentences overall.
At the same time that U.S. prison populations keep growing, crime is dropping. A careful statistical analysis in The Atlantic shows:
“Increased incarceration accounted for about 6 percent of the property crime decline in the 1990s, and 1 percent of that drop in the 2000s. The growth of incarceration had no observable effect on violent crime in the 1990s or 2000s. This last finding may initially seem surprising. But given that we are sending more and more low-level and non-violent offenders to prison (who may never have been prone to violent crime), the finding makes sense. Sending a non-violent offender to prison will not necessarily have an effect on violent crime.”
Moreover, about a dozen states that have decreased their incarceration rates in the last decade saw simultaneous decreases in crime rates.
We need to stop putting so many people in prison. Our current prison system doesn’t do much rehabilitation. Instead, prisons make people less employable, less able to find housing, and disenfranchised at the polling place.
People on all parts of the political spectrum now agree that our prison and criminal justice system must be fixed. The New York Times reports that a new Coalition for Public Safety, committed to “reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives,” includes organizations ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union and the progressive Center for American Progress to the conservative Koch brothers.
The feds are cutting some prison terms. That will help a few people, but the vast majority of prisoners sit in state prisons and local jails. They won’t even be touched by the federal reforms. State-by-state approaches to cutting prison populations are needed, and some are beginning.
Beyond cutting prison terms, we need to change what prisons do. Since the 1970s, the myth of “rehabilitation doesn’t work” has dominated much of public discussion, and prisons have been designed to confine and to punish but rarely to rehabilitate. On the contrary, careful studies show that a wide range of rehabilitation programs do work for most offenders. (See articles here and here and here and here.)
Reforming the criminal justice system requires overhauls of sentencing laws and review and reduction of sentences for current prisoners. Even more important, we must reform the entire system to focus on effective, evidence-based rehabilitation programs, both inside prisons (for those currently imprisoned) and at every stage of the criminal justice process.