Rewarding Reduced Crime Rates—Not Mass Incarceration

An increasing number of people, up to and including the Attorney General of the United States, have condemned mass incarceration in the United States. The effects of having 5 percent of the world's population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners housed within our borders are profound. It needlessly ruins countless lives, costs enormous sums of money that could go to more useful purposes, and disproportionately affects racial minorities. As the opposition to mass incarceration builds, a new report from the Brennan Center of Justice makes a valuable contribution to the question of how imprisonment rates can be reduced. 

Legislators on the Hill—from both parties—have made some tentative steps towards prison reform. But, it isn't clear how much these steps can help; most imprisonment in the United States happens under states' watch. The reforms suggested by the Brennan Center report—written by Inimai Chettiar, Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Nicole Fortier, and Timothy Ross—are particularly valuable under this light. The key premise of the report is this: The most important federal criminal-justice grant program should be modified to encourage criminal-justice systems at the federal, state, and local level to pursue alternatives to mass incarceration.

One recommended change involves the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which provides $512 million a year to assist with law enforcement. Law-enforcement agencies that receive funding have to submit reports showing how the money was used to advance key goals. The state reports required under current JAG funding, the report argues, creates perverse incentives. Law-enforcement systems have to report factors such as arrests and high quantity drug seizures rather than factors that emphasize results. As the authors put it:

[T]oday’s JAG performance measures fail to show whether the programs it funds have achieved “success:” improving public safety without needless social costs. These measures send a signal to states and localities that the federal government desires more arrests,more cocaine busts, and more prosecutions at the expense of other more effective activities.

Rather than signaling that the federal government wants more prisoners, the report maintains, the reporting requirements should encourage result-oriented measures that push states to pursue measures that reduce crime without the massive social costs of mass incarceration. In particular, the Department of Justice should change the reporting requirements to emphasize a focus on violent crime (rather than nonviolent drug offenses) and programs that reduce recidivism.

An even better alternative to the current system? Making funding—not only JAG grants but Violence Against Women Act grants, appropriations for federal agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons, and government contracts—contingent on meeting these better goals. The reports lists a variety of ways in which this could be accomplished, any of which would provide important leverage for prison reform.

Using the power of the purse to reduce incarceration rates would not necessarily find a hostile reception in state capitols. As the Prospect's Abby Rapoport reported earlier this year, prison reform is not the sole province of the left. Several states controlled by conservative Republicans—including Texas and Kansas—have enacted salutary prison reforms. Indeed, state legislatures should consider using their own budgets to focus police and prosecutors on crime-reduction goals rather than rewarding incarceration as an end in itself.

Mass incarceration is an ongoing disaster. Our country is spending large amounts of money to exacerbate social inequality with increasingly diminishing crime-control returns. Both federal and state legislators should use their spending power to reduce America's prison population and creating better incentives for law enforcement.

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