Though the crime rate in the United States has fallen sharply over the past quarter-century, our federal and state prison population has been frozen for nearly a decade at a historic high of 1.6 million. By one estimate, America has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.
A 2014 report by the National Research Council found that the number has gone up and stayed up not because more crimes are being committed but because more arrestees end up behind bars for longer sentences. Mandatory sentencing and other “tough on crime” measures have contributed to a prison system that is financially and morally unsustainable. Pope Francis, in an address last year to the International Criminal Law Association, called for reforms to a system that prevents too many individuals from successfully returning to society (see Am., editorial, 8/4/2014).
Criminal justice reform is one of the few areas where activists of all ideological stripes have found some common ground. In February, the Coalition for Public Safety, a new group dedicated to reducing the U.S. prison population, announced that its supporters range from the American Civil Liberties Union to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. Last year at least 30 states enacted reforms to reduce sentences or provide alternatives to prison. These changes are not entirely altruistic. Taxpayers stand to save millions of dollars when fewer people become wards of the state and when fewer ex-convicts engage in behavior that sends them back to prison. The incarceration of juveniles is especially costly, as the failure to complete high school is likely to lead to recidivism and much longer prison sentences.
But our political system does not always reward sensible reform. A single violent act, even if it is not indicative of a rising crime rate, can frighten the public enough to cause a return to blindly punitive policies. The benefits of criminal justice reform, including financial savings and the repairs to communities damaged by mass incarceration, do not necessarily redound to prosecutors and judges, so they may not be motivated to tighten the prison pipeline. The N.R.C. report estimated that only 5 percent of felony convictions come from juries; most often, prosecutors exact guilty pleas from defendants by threatening to seek longer sentences at trial.
Even when policymakers want to cut prison spending, there is a temptation to take the cheapest and most shortsighted approaches. These can include bigger prisons that are more cost-efficient but provide fewer educational opportunities and rehabilitation services. In some cases, incarceration can be outsourced to private companies with little oversight or accountability. (The private prison industry has contributed more than $45 million to political candidates and lobbyists over the past decade.) Local governments may save money by transferring prisoners to out-of-state facilities, as Wisconsin did a decade ago when it shipped 5,000 inmates as far as Oklahoma, mostly to privately run prisons. This is an especially cruel turn of events for family members and others who want to keep in contact with inmates and ease their eventual re-entry into towns and neighborhoods.
The “ban the box” movement, which seeks to limit the circumstances in which employers can ask job applicants about criminal backgrounds, is one way to reintegrate prisoners into society, but it’s also a hot-button political issue, easily characterized as the government “forcing” businesses to hire ex-felons. Egged on by too many of our political leaders, Americans have come to see those released from confinement as untouchables, and we cut them off from jobs, housing and public assistance programs. We see in-prison education programs as bad investments, despite the lower rates of recidivism associated with college attendance (“The Prison Class,” 3/10/2014).
Though criminal justice reform is mostly a state issue, it is always at risk of being derailed by national politics. Tough-on-crime grandstanding has benefited both parties—perhaps the Democrats more, at least during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Next year brings a presidential election, and we have not seen much nuance or compassion so far when candidates for national office talk about crime. For that reason, 2015 represents a better opportunity to make gains toward a more humane and more farsighted criminal-justice system. There is no time to waste.