The U.S. prison population shrank in 2016 for the eighth consecutive year. The national retreat from mass incarceration has radiating benefits to the whole country, not all of which are fully appreciated.
New data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that the combined state and federal prison population decreased by 21,200 inmates in 2016. That brought the national imprisonment rate to 450 per 100,000 Americans, a level last seen in 1997. Cutting the imprisonment rate to a generational low obviously benefited people who were released from prison or who avoided going there in the first place because of recent changes in arrest and sentencing policies. But the benefits are far more broadly shared than that.
A mass incarceration mystery
As U.S. imprisonment soared to a level beyond that of any other developed country, Americans turned an increasing portion of their tax dollars over to the penal system. A study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that in small states like Rhode Island and Arkansas, the prison system costs hundreds of millions of dollars annually, and in large states like Texas and California, they are multibillion-dollar enterprises. When the prison population drops, states have more money available to repair roads, provide education and health care, or cut taxes.
A skeptical voter might respond that the high financial cost of mass incarceration is worth it because it keeps communities safe. But the shrinking of American prisons has been accompanied by a drop in crime, suggesting that the country was investing in incarceration beyond the level that public safety was being enhanced.
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Rolling back mass incarceration has also benefited African American communities and people of all ethnic groups who wish to reduce racial disparities in American society. That’s because the rate of deincarceration has been even faster for African Americans than for other groups. The imprisonment rate of African American men is at a quarter-century low, and the rate for African American women is at a 29-year low.
The rate of African American imprisonment is still extraordinarily high in absolute terms and is beyond that of any other racial group. But the positive effects of bringing the black imprisonment rate down to a level not seen since around 1990 shouldn’t be dismissed. Hundreds of thousands fewer African Americans will be barred from housing, employment and educational opportunities because of a prison record. Black families will have more stability as fewer parents are removed to serve a prison term. Black families and communities are likely to become healthier because fewer people will be exposed to the physical and emotional strains of incarceration.
There is still a long road ahead for reversing mass incarceration, but the progress made in the past decade has benefited Americans in terms of expanded freedom, reduced demand on the public purse and greater racial equality. All of this has been achieved while keeping crime rates low. More such rewards lie ahead if the country continues to reverse its disastrous experiment in mass incarceration.