A comprehensive review of data led the committee that wrote the report to conclude that the costs of the current rate of incarceration outweigh the benefits. The committee recommended that federal and state policymakers re-examine policies requiring mandatory and long sentences, as well as take steps to improve prison conditions and to reduce unnecessary harm to the families and communities of those incarcerated. In addition, it recommended a reconsideration of drug crime policy, given the apparently low effectiveness of a heightened enforcement strategy that resulted in a tenfold increase in the incarceration rate for drug offenses from 1980 to 2010—twice the rate for other crimes.

"We are concerned that the United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits," said committee chair Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society. A criminal justice system that makes less use of incarceration can better achieve its aims than a harsher, more punitive system. There are common-sense, practical steps we can take to move in this direction."

The unprecedented and internationally unique rise in U.S. state and federal prison populations, from 200,000 inmates in 1973 to 1.5 million in 2009, occurred because of policy decisions such as mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeat offenses, and intensified criminalization of drug-related activity. Stricter sentencing policies were formed initially during a period of rising crime and social change; however, over the four decades when incarceration rates rose steadily, crime rates fluctuated.

The committee evaluated scientific evidence on the effects of high incarceration rates on public safety and U.S. society, as well as their effects on those in prison, their families, and the communities from which prisoners originate and to which they return. The following data illustrate the magnitude of incarceration rates, the racial disparities of incarceration, and societal impacts:

  • With the inclusion of local jails, the U.S. penal population totals 2.2 million adults, the largest in the world; the U.S. has nearly one-quarter of the world's prisoners, but only 5 percent of its population.
  • Nearly 1 in 100 adults is in prison or jail, which is 5 to 10 times higher than rates in Western Europe and other democracies.
  • Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were black or Hispanic.
  • Black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market.
  • In 2009, 62 percent of black children 17 or younger whose parents had not completed high school had experienced a parent being sent to prison, compared with 17 percent for Hispanic children and 15 percent for white children with similarly educated parents.
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