How Many Americans Are Behind Bars for No Good Reason?

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Lots, according to a new report.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr)

It’s an undisputed fact that the United States is the incarceration capital of the world. Despite hosting only 4.4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. feeds, clothes, and houses nearly 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, or more than two million people. While violent victimization rates are comparable to other advanced Western nations — and crime rates have declined over the last several decades — the U.S.’s incarceration rate far outstrips any other nation on the planet. In fact, individual states surpass dozens of other countries in prisoners per capita; Louisiana alone imprisons its residents at a higher rate than Iran, China, or Germany.

But the most alarming part of American’s morph into a carceral state is the fact that so many inmates simply don’t deserve to be there. A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that some 39 percent of American prisoners are “unnecessarily incarcerated” with “little public safety rationale.” That’s 576,000 people locked up for relatively minor crimes ranging from drug possession to simple assault, one-time offenders who the Brennan Center argues could be better served through alternative means of punishment and rehabilitation “with limited impact on public safety” rather than being condemned to a cycle of crime and punishment.

(Chart: Brennan Center)

The report—a three-year analysis of national data on convictions, sentencing, and state and federal criminal codes for factors ranging from seriousness to recidivism rate—isn’t just a call for clemency beyond the Oval Office; it’s a battle plan for dismantling the prison-industrial complex brick by brick.

Ever since Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater made “law and order” the watchword of modern political campaigns in 1964, the U.S. has gradually enacted increasingly stringent laws to combat the rise of violent crime throughout the 1970s and ’80s, from the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws that created mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses to the 1994 federal “Crime Bill” that placed citizens a mere three infractions away from life without parole.

The resulting drop in crime has only bolstered support for more punitive measures, from daily policing (see: the militarization of local police forces) to sentencing (prison stays increased 33 percent between 1993 and 2009).

Rather than rehabilitating misguided kids, the prison-industrial complex molds them into hardened convicts.

But while crime has fallen to historic lows in the intervening decades, research by the Brennan Center, Brooking Institution, and National Academy of Science suggests that the gains from higher incarceration rates and longer sentences are increasingly marginal.

(Chart: Brennan Center)

“Over the last decade, 27 states have reduced both imprisonment and crime together. From 1999 to 2012, New Jersey and New York reduced their prison populations by about 30 percent, while crime fell faster than it did nationally,” the report authors write. “Texas decreased imprisonment and crime by more than 20 percent during the same period. California, in part because of a court order, cut its prison population by 27 percent, and violence in the state also fell more than the national average.”

Additionally, the authors note that imprisoning low-level offenders can increase the rate of recidivism; once cut off from rehabilitative programming or other support networks, otherwise harmless people often find themselves left behind educationally, socially, and occupationally for years after leaving prison. It’s no wonder the national recidivism rate for former prisoners has remained around 50 percent for so long: Rather than rehabilitating misguided kids, the prison-industrial complex molds them into hardened convicts.

This obsession with swift justice has yielded a financial burden for state and federal governments. The Brennan Center argues that both ending prison as a default punishment (through alternative programs like probation and electronic monitoring) and shortening sentences for low-level offenders (95 percent of which are non-violent) could shrink the U.S. prison population by 580,000 people.

“If these prisoners were released, it would result in cost savings of nearly $20 billion per year, and almost $200 billion over 10 years,” the authors observe of what they call the “unnecessarily incarcerated.” “This sum is enough to employ 270,000 new police officers, 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers. It is greater than the annual budgets of the United States Departments of Commerce and Labor combined.”

Such a massive reorientation of the American penal system is a tough proposal to swallow — and not just because of the private prison industry. As The Atlantic’s Matt Fordpoints out, Goldwater’s vengeful “law and order” rhetoric has resonated with voters for four decades because most Americans think about incarceration “as a largely punitive tool,” an expression of societal vengeance, rather than a more utilitarian tool for restorative or retributive justice.

It certainly doesn’t help that while most Americans favor treatment over incarceration as the nation’s primary means of dealing with drug addiction, a majority of voters believe that crime has worsened since 2008 despite evidence to the contrary, according to the Pew Research Center.

The current policies that make up the U.S. sentencing process are a “knee-jerk” reaction to crime, based on emotion and “dislocated from public reality,” as the authors write. For the average voter, the anxiety of safety will always come first.