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.
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population.
And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details.
Nearly 30,000 California prisoners are on hunger strike to protest various abuses, including the extensive use of solitary confinement. This strike is the latest reflection of just how broken the state's prison system is. In turn, the problems in California showcase the myriad messes that increasingly define American crime-control policy.
Criminal justice reform activists have long argued that the “school-to-prison” pipeline—the process that places children in the criminal-justice system for misbehavior in school—has a destructive effect on future outcomes. A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research gives a sense of just how destructive. According to economists Anna Aizer and Joseph Doyle Jr., juvenile incarceration—one result of getting caught in the pipeline—drastically reduces the probability of completing high school, and substantially increases the odds of adult incarceration. From the paper:
In Florida, a coalition of Democrats and a few moderate Republicans killed what could have been a major expansion of private prisons. The measure would have privatized 27 prisons and displaced more than 3,500 corrections officers. In the Florida Senate, nine Republicans voted against the measure, along with all 12 Democratic state senators. It was a rare victory for both Democrats and the labor unions that fought the bill.
The ACLU's latest criminal justice infographic tries to dispel the notion of causation between an increase in the prison population and a decline in the crime rate. New York has seen its prison population decline along with its crime rates, while Indiana saw its prison population increase with a much more negligible dip in the latter:
When then-candidate Rick Scott and the police unions were butting heads over Scott's plans to reduce prison costs, I pointed out that neither side was particularly sympathetic. The police unions were accusing Scott of wanting to release dangerous criminals and Scott was arguing that forcing inmates to grow their own food was going to save money.
I meant to link to the Justice Policy Institute's report on private prisons last week, but Andrea Nill Sanchez has a good summary of the report's conclusions about tremendous influence private prison companies have amassed by throwing money around:
I know some people must think that infographics are being overused these days, but I'm basically on Team Infographic, and this ACLU offering on the impact of mass incarceration is a good example of why:
For the first time in 40 years, the number of prisoners in state prison systems has dropped, according to a new report from the Pew Center on the States. During the past four decades, the number of prisoners rose precipitously -- by more than 700 percent -- as more people were sent to prison and kept there longer.
Coinciding with a recent burst of organizing around immigration reform, Tom Barry pens a fascinating, if grueling, piece in the latest Boston Review. Barry dissects the newest species of American incarceration: the public-private immigration prison and the corresponding “prison towns” that have sprung up all across the country, but particularly along the Southern border.
The facilities, which are jointly owned by local governments and private corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America, are seen as a guaranteed source of revenue, and are often located in economically depressed communities: