The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The meteoric, costly and unprecedented rise of incarceration in America

A "No Trespassing" sign is displayed on fencing surrounding the Marine Technology Training Center, part of the California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) of the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Pleas to reform prison policy in the United States have come from numerous interest and advocacy groups over the years, their numbers steadily expanding as the size of the world's largest prison population has, too. They've come from the families of incarcerated offenders, from policymakers who've wearied of the war on drugs, from fiscal conservatives who've watched states devote ever more money to incarceration. Increasingly, the call for prison reform has come from unlikely alliances of the left and right.

But this latest voice may carry the most weight yet: On Wednesday, the National Research Council published a 464-page report, two years in the making, that looks at the stunning four-decade rise of incarceration in the United States and concludes that all of its costs — for families, communities, state budgets and society — have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction.

The report, commissioned by the National Institute of Justice and the MacArthur Foundation, assess nearly every facet of America's "historically unprecedented and internationally unique" rise in incarceration since the 1970s. It synthesizes years of evidence on crime trends, on causes driving the growth in prisons, and on the consequences of all this imprisonment. It argues that the U.S. should revise its current criminal justice policies — including sentencing laws and drug enforcement — to significantly cut prison rates and scale back what's become the world's most punitive culture.

So how did we get here, and what do four decades of criminal justice policy teach us about where we should go next? Here is your primer on the National Research Council's report.

U.S. incarceration has skyrocketed in four decades

For decades in the early and mid-20th century, the U.S. prison population was remarkably stable. But that has changed dramatically since the 1970s. In 1973, federal and state prisons in the U.S. held 200,000 adults. By 2009, that number had ballooned to 1.5 million, with an additional 700,000 serving prison time for felonies in local jails, bringing the total to 2.23 million adults:

Add adults interacting with the criminal justice system outside of prison, and the total adult correctional population in the U.S. is even larger:

That's given us the largest prison population in the world

The past 40 years constitute not just a historical anomaly within U.S. history; they've made the U.S. home to more prisoners than any other country in the world. Today, nearly 1 in 100 adults in the U.S. is in a prison or jail. That rate is five to 10 times higher than in Western Europe and the world's other democracies:

Today, the U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, but nearly a quarter of all of its prisoners.

Why has this happened?

The tremendous increase in incarceration in the U.S. does not reflect the fact that the country has become substantially more criminal or violent over this time. The true explanation has more to do with politics and policy.

Since the 1970s, Congress and state legislatures have enacted a number of changes to prison and sentencing laws that have mandated prison time for lesser offenses and ensured longer sentences for violent crimes and repeat offenders. The "war on drugs" — a corollary to Lyndon Johnson's "war on crime" — also ensured that drug crimes received more attention from police and harsher punishment in courtrooms.

During the 1980s, Congress began to enact "mandatory minimum" laws for drug crimes and violent offenses. The 1990s brought "three strikes" laws in Congress and more than half of states (giving a third offense mandatory sentences of 25 years or more). "Truth-in-sentencing" laws also required offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Effectively, more people were going to jail, carrying with them longer sentences. And increasingly, they were serving almost all of that time.

As a result, between 1980 and 2010, the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold:


Popular support for politicians who are "tough on crime" helped feed these trends. And much research suggests that public opinion on the topic of crime and punishment has been heavily racialized, suggesting that we can't understand the rise in incarceration without acknowledging the mediating role of race. The NRC report acknowledges this:

Deeply held racial fears, anxieties, and animosities likely explain the resonance of coded racial appeals concerning crime-related issues, such as the infamous “Willie Horton ad" aired during the 1988 presidential election. But racial indifference and insensitivity — as distinguished from outright racial hostility — may help explain the long-term public support for criminal justice policies that have had an adverse and disproportionate impact on blacks (and Latinos).

For example: Experimental and survey research suggests that racial resentment is a strong predictor in whether whites support capital punishment. Racial prejudice has also been associated with increased support for more punitive prison policies. And policing tactics that disproportionately impact minorities — like stop-and-frisk — are more likely to be supported by whites than blacks.

The financial cost associated with these policies has been staggering

Spending on incarceration at the state level has outpaced budget increases for just about every other function of government, including education, transportation and welfare. Only spending on Medicaid at the state level has grown faster in the last 20 years.

State spending on corrections increased by 400 percent, adjusted for inflation, between 1980 and 2009 (over the same time, state prison populations increased by 475 percent). The rise in corrections spending at the federal and local level has been similarly steep:

As a result, the report points out, the criminal justice system in many states has increasingly become the main provider of health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, job training and education for the most disadvantaged populations in America.

And the social costs have disproportionately fallen on poor and minority communities

Today, minorities constitute 60 percent of the U.S. prison population. Men under the age of 40, the poorly educated, people with mental illness  and drug and alcohol addicts are also over-represented.

Blacks in particular have been disproportionately arrested for drug crimes:

While incarceration rates for both Hispanics and blacks have risen much faster than they have for whites:

As a result of these trends, black men younger than 35 without a high school degree are now more likely in America to be imprisoned than employed in the labor market.

These disproportionate impacts extend to their children: As of 2009, 62 percent of black children under 17, whose parents had not completed high school, have had a parent in prison. The same was true for 17 percent of Hispanic children and 15 percent of white children (with similarly educated parents).

These racial disparities compound other problems in distressed communities

Prisoners are more likely to come out of poor communities (and to return to them). This means that communities with the least capacity to absorb former prisoners are home to the largest share of them. This also means that economic, social and political problems tied to incarceration tend to fall on communities that have many other related challenges.

"There is little question," as the report puts it, "that incarceration has become another strand in the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities."

Consider New York city, where just 15 of 65 community districts on the below map accounted for more than half of all city residents sent to prison in 2009. Those same communities have poverty rates that are twice as high as the city average, and they are more than 90 percent minority.

In these communities, incarceration is part of the poverty trap. Men and women with few prospects are more likely to wind up in prison. Then when they come out, their prospects for employment are even bleaker. "Their criminal responsibility is real," the NRC writes, "but it is embedded in a context of social and economic disadvantage."

That concentrated disadvantage is also passed to the next generation. Research has linked incarceration to frayed relationships between parents  and between men and their children. It's linked to economic distress for families, housing insecurity  and reliance on public assistance. Incarceration reduces fathers' involvement with their children, even after their release from prison, and it undermines their roles as parents and earners. Having an incarcerated father also increases a child's chances of having behavioral problems, bad grades and lower educational attainment.

At the community level, high rates of incarceration are associated with lower civic and political engagement — not just for former prisoners, but for the communities around them. Incarceration disenfranchises former felons, nearly 6 million of whom could not vote in 2010. That's five times more than in 1976. That also means that 1 in 40 voting-age adults is disenfranchised in the U.S. Or 1 in 13 voting-age blacks.

And all of this incarceration has had minimal benefit

Over the four decades when incarceration rates steadily rose, actual crime rates fluctuated:

Since the 1990s, crime has generally fallen, but this does not necessarily mean that crime fell because of increases in incarceration. A number of other changes in society — and in policing tactics — have taken place over the same time.

The increase in incarceration may have caused a decrease in crime, but most studies suggest that this effect is small or uncertain. If strict prison policies are meant to be a deterrent to repeat offenders, there's also little evidence in the literature that the experience of being in prison discourages people from re-offending.

So if the costs of mass incarceration are steep and the benefits small, what do we do now?

The National Research Council calls for reform on three fronts. On sentencing policy, we could reduce the length of sentences and the harshness of drug laws. With prison policy, we could work to improve the programs and conditions for people serving in prison, while trying to make the consequences of incarceration less harmful on their families and communities on the outside.

There's also much we could do in the realm of social policy, far beyond the typical reach of the criminal justice system. Given that incarceration has become deeply intertwined with other problems within impoverished communities, policies that reduce school dropout rates, that ameliorate neighborhood poverty or mental illness would also have an impact.

The U.S. also needs to recall principles that have been "notably missing," in the report's language, in public discussion of criminal justice policy as incarceration rates have skyrocketed. Namely, these:

Proportionality: Criminal offenses should be sentenced in proportion to their seriousness.
Parsimony: The period of confinement should be sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the goals of sentencing policy.
Citizenship: The conditions and consequences of imprisonment should not be so severe or lasting as to violate one’s fundamental status as a member of society.
Social justice: Prisons should be instruments of justice, and as such their collective effect should be to promote society’s aspirations for a fair distribution of rights, resources and opportunities.

No doubt, this conversation probably should have started 40 years ago.