Study: Mass Incarceration Has Led To The Unnecessary Imprisonment Of 576,000

Inmates at the Orleans Parish Prison in Louisiana.Bart Everson/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

A new report details the unnecessary and ineffectual imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S.

It is no secret that the United States incarcerates its citizens at rates unmatched by any other developed nation, but a new study has found that nearly 40 percent of those put behind bars in the U.S. are imprisoned “without a sufficient public safety rationale”.

The analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law puts the number of people incarcerated under such circumstances at about 576,000.

This report is the product of three years of research conducted by one of the nation’s leading criminologists, experienced criminal justice lawyers, and statistical researchers. First, we conducted an in-depth examination of the federal and state criminal codes, as well as the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories) to estimate how many people are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. We find that alternatives to incarceration are more effective and just penalties for many lower-level crimes. We also find that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a discrete set of more serious crimes.

Second, based on these findings, we propose a new, alternative framework for sentencing grounded in the science of public safety and rehabilitation.

The researchers determined that the 39 percent of federal and state prisoners could be sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison sentence with “limited impact on public safety” — and such a move would save about $20 billion annually.

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.

Further, research indicates that prison is ineffective when it comes to rehabilitation and in some cases can actually increase the likelihood of repeat offenses, the report notes.

Alternative sentences for lower-level offenders — about a quarter of the current prison population — would prove more effective:

For example, of the nearly 66,000 prisoners whose most severe crime is drug possession, the average sentence is over one year; these offenders would be better sentenced to treatment or other alternatives.

Even those convicted of more serious offenses, such as “aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offenses, robbery, serious burglary, and serious drug trafficking”, are sometimes serving longer sentences than might be necessary or effective.

An estimated 212,000 prisoners (14 percent of the total population) have already served sufficiently long prison terms and could likely be released within the next year with little risk to public safety. These prisoners are serving time for the more serious crimes that make up 58 percent of today’s prison population.

The report also notes that a strikingly high number of U.S. prisoners suffer from mental health issues or drug addiction, neither of which are best treated by the prison system.

Approximately 79 percent of today’s prisoners suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness, and 40 percent suffer from both.35 Alternative interventions such as treatment could be more effective sanctions for many of these individuals.

The researchers go on to recommend several reforms — both for moving forward as well as to be applied retroactively — in an effort to bring the U.S. incarceration rate down and mete out more effective and just penalties for those who break the law.

Read the full report.