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Dealing with Mass Incarceration

By Alfred Blumstein. Full Text.

In today’s highly polarized political environment, one of the few issues which garners widespread agreement is the desire to reduce prison populations. Thus, it is rather disconcerting to see the recent stability of the incarceration rate since 2000. This raises the concern that this could be a reflection of a “new normal,” like the stable incarceration rate of 110 (per 100,000 US population) that prevailed for 50 years from the 1920s to the 1970s. A reasonable proposal to halve the current incarceration rate by doubling the post-peak annual decline rate of 1.5% to 3% would take 23 years to reach a level of 220. That would still be twice the stable rate before the rise, and well above the range of all other industrial nations. The United States needs something much more aggressive.

There are many possible approaches to reducing today’s mass incarceration problem. The first approach would involve repealing the many increases in sentencing legislation, especially mandatory minimums, passed during the rise in the 1980s and 1990s. Also, there needs to be a serious reconsideration of the major growth in life sentences that has resulted in many elderly in prisons with low risks of recidivism. Many other approaches are reflected in Zimring’s volume that favors California’s court-mandated “realignment,” that calls for greater attention to the consequent pressure on local jails, while still keeping prisoners close to home. Many other states have found a rich array of approaches to reduce their prison populations. Federal support is needed to catalog the many approaches that have been implemented, provide an assessment of the fiscal savings achieved, and document any changes in crime that may have resulted. Federal support should be provided for a catalog of potential improvements for individual states to consider as they work at reducing their prison populations.