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How a national spike in incarcerations affects crime, cost and communities

May 1, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
Ex-inmates have a greater exposure to disease and maintain higher levels of stress than men who have never been imprisoned, which leads them to die earlier, according to a new study.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: what to do about a decades-long growth in the number of Americans behind bars.

That was the subject of a gathering of policy-makers, academics and law enforcement officials meeting in Washington today. It’s also the focus of new research released this week that questions how effective government has been at reducing crime.

Jeffrey Brown looks deeper with the author of one of the new reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: The U.S. penal population is the largest in the world, with more than two million people behind bars. And while the nation accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses 25 percent of its prisoners. These numbers have increased fourfold over the past 40 years.

A new report by the National Academy of Sciences examines the causes and consequences of this explosion in rates and recommends the U.S. revise its current criminal justice policies in order to cut down the figures.

The chair of the committee that issued the report joins us now.

Jeremy Travis is president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

And welcome to you.

JEREMY TRAVIS, President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice: Thank you for the invitation.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, the sheer size of this population, which you call historically unprecedented and internationally unique, what are the key drivers that got us there?

JEREMY TRAVIS: So the drivers are a big change in our penal posture as a country, sort of how we think about punishment, how we think about how to respond to crime.

And we have invested heavily in prison as a response to crime. And that has been part of our political discussion and part of our criminal justice discussion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so you are citing mandatory minimum sentences, longer sentences, use of prison for certain crimes than perhaps in the past wouldn’t have been used.

What are the costs that you cite, clearly societal costs that you talk about here? Some of it has to do clearly with racial and ethnic minorities.

JEREMY TRAVIS: Let’s start with the fiscal costs.

The fiscal costs are enormous. States now spend $57 billion a year for their state prisons. There’s another $27 billion for jails, another $6 billion for the federal system, which continues to grow. And those costs are enormous, and those costs, those expenditures are squeezing out other public purposes, like education, or health care, or housing, things that the taxpayer might rather see their money invested in.

But, as you indicated, there are other costs that we document in this report. We review the evidence. This is a science report from the National Academy. So we review the evidence on the consequence of having quadrupled the rate of incarceration for our country and for our democracy.

If we look just at prisons themselves, we now have many prisons that are overcrowded because we have squeezed a lot of people into not much more space. They’re getting fewer programs. They’re less well-prepared for their inevitable return home. But we also look at the consequences for their families.

We have now two million people who — children who have a parent in prison. The consequences, the intergenerational consequences are very profound. For their communities, there are consequences of lots of people being churned in and out of the prison system. And these consequences are concentrated in a small number of communities of color, poor communities where people are already struggling with a lot of other adverse circumstances.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know what is perhaps the most interesting — or controversial, perhaps, notion here is that the idea that more incarceration leads to a lower crime rate you’re suggesting doesn’t hold up.

JEREMY TRAVIS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Or at least doesn’t hold up in the way that we have thought of in the past, certainly not to make up for the kind of costs you just talked about. Explain that.

JEREMY TRAVIS: Well, this conclusion might surprise people.

So we reviewed the evidence on the relationship between incarceration and public safety. And there are a number of studies that have been done. And the basic conclusion of our committee is that it’s hard to have any mathematical precision about this question.

We acknowledge that there is some effect of having lots more people in prison on crime rates. And that’s not a surprise. But we also note that the studies basically show that the effect is very small. So we have had a big increase in incarceration rates. And that was justified by our elected officials and our public understanding as being necessary to reduce crime. And we have a small effect, with some uncertainty in terms of the precision of the estimation of that effect.

So this big debt has not paid off. So the basic recommendation of our panel is, in light of those very nominal benefits and the enormous costs, financial and other, that it’s time to reverse course.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does that mean? What kind of alternatives are you calling for? What examples, if any, do you see already out there in the states or at the federal level?

JEREMY TRAVIS: So another finding that might surprise people is that the increase in incarceration has not been driven by crime rates. So crime has gone up and gone down over this 40-year period, and the incarceration has gone up every year.

If you go back further in our history, sort of the turmoil of the ’60s and ’70s created an environment in which we became tough on crime, law and order, and we remember that rhetoric. But over time, the growth of our prison population is not tied to crime rates.

So what are the drivers, if it’s not crime? The drivers are choices that we have made to make long sentences longer and to put people in prison who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to prison, mandatory minimum sentences. So that’s — that evidence gives us great confidence in making recommendations to the states and the federal government that they should review the mandatory minimums, the truth in sentencing statutes that keep people in prison longer, the three strikes and you are out reforms.

All of these reforms we adopted over the decades have not have any had any significant crime control effect, and we specifically recommend a reexamination of drug enforcement policy. The per capita rate of incarceration for drug offenses has gone up tenfold, while the overall rate has gone up fourfold.

So we have invested a lot in the drug enforcement policy, and in fact drug prices have come down, when they should have gone up with more enforcement. And drug use has stayed constant. So here is an example of a policy that is not paying the benefits that the public had hoped for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you briefly, finally, there’s a lot — this discussion is in the air, right, about the prisons.

JEREMY TRAVIS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re throwing out a bunch of things that really aim at policies that have been there for several decades.

How viable, how much pushback, how much of a discussion or possibility, really, for reform do you think is there right now?

JEREMY TRAVIS: Well, our committee took note of and is heartened by the amount of the reform in the air.

And it’s not anymore a matter of left vs. right. The Republican Party, the Democratic Party have come together on these issues. State governments are now revisiting some of these policies. The federal government, even recently, the attorney general has made some important pronouncements.

So there is no question that things are changing, and changing in essence in the directions that we’re recommending. But even given that optimism, our review of the history should remind us as a nation that this is a very difficult set of policy choices that we have to make to reverse course, because it took us 40 years to get here. We hope that the current high level incarceration is not the new normal forever, because the effects are quite profound.

So, it is really a call to action, that we hope our evidence will help support this political and public discussion that will put us in a different direction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jeremy Travis, thank you so much.

JEREMY TRAVIS: Well, thank you for the invitation.