In many of the corrections courses I teach, we frequently end up having some variation of the below conversation:
Student: We need to build more prisons because crime is increasing.
Me: Actually, crime isn’t increasing, and there’s little consensus that prisons work to reduce crime rates anyway. In fact, many who research the relationship between incarceration and crime feel that we’ve gone too far in our use of prisons, which has lead to overcrowding.
Student: But if our prisons are overcrowded, we need to build more.
Me: Or, we could stop over-relying on prisons as a primary way to deal with crime.
Student: But, if people don’t believe they’ll go to prison, they’ll just commit more crimes.
And on it goes.
I don’t fault my students, of course. They’re just learning about the system and how it works, and I expect them to bring their ideas about correctional practice to the classroom. I also expect them to challenge what they’re learning and to think critically about all of the new information they’re being exposed to in their studies.
It’s certainly no wonder that students are frequently convinced that a) crime is on the rise, and b) we need more prisons. Both of those points are commonly misconstrued in the media and, more significantly, by ill-informed politicians seeking to whip the public into a frenzy over crime issues as a way to secure funding for this or that pet project.
True, the evidence is somewhat mixed on whether or not prisons actually reduce crime. There’s some research showing that the incapacitating effect of imprisonment does reduce certain forms of criminal behavior. The relationship between incarceration and crime rates is complex, though, which makes studying it quite challenging.
But some leading academics have pointed out the illogical elements of pro-prison arguments. On this point, Dr. Joan Petersilia of Stanford University wrote that:
…if there were a close correlation between crime rates and incarceration, the prisons would have begun emptying out in the late 1990s, when crime in most of its forms began to decrease.
As we know, that’s not what’s happened at all. Incarceration rates have soared to the point where the US leads the world in the use of imprisonment. According to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (PDF), the incarceration rate in the United States (including both jails and prisons) was 920 per 100,000 residents in 2012, down slightly from the 1,000 persons per 100,000 rate in 2009.
The reductions in imprisonment rates is welcome, but will that translate into increases in crime as some fear? Not necessarily, at least according to a 2013 summary by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. According to the below infographic that summarizes state data on 2012 imprisonment rates, 29 states simultaneously reduced both the rates of imprisonment and crime.
The Pew infographic also makes a direct comparison between data from two states (Maryland and Arizona) that both experienced more than a 20% drop in the crime rate but also had very different rates of incarceration. Maryland reduced prison use by 11% while Arizona increased their use by 4%.
This highlights the complex relationship between incarceration and crime rates – but the overall message is clear: it is possible to reduce prison use without increasing crime.
In my opinion, we’re at a point where reducing our reliance on prisons is not only a good idea, it’s a necessity. We’re spending billions of dollars annually to house, feed, and clothe inmates, many of whom could be safely and effectively supervised in the community at a fraction of the cost. As Dr. Petersilia also noted in her article above, informal discussions with correctional administrators around the country have disclosed their belief that fully 10-15% of their current prison populations could be safely released to the community.
When we couple all of this with the advancements in evidence-based practices, such as Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, it becomes apparent that we now have tools that can indeed reduce our reliance on incarceration while also increasing our ability to successfully intervene with correctional clients in community-based settings.
What are your thoughts? More prisons, less prisons? Leave a comment and share your opinions below!
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