Every year, over , people enter prison gates, but people go to jail Only a small number less than , on any given day have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year. Slideshow 2. Swipe for more detail on pre-trial detention. With a sense of the big picture, the next question is: why are so many people locked up? How many are incarcerated for drug offenses? Are the profit motives of private companies driving incarceration?
Or is it really about public safety and keeping dangerous people off the streets? There are a plethora of modern myths about incarceration. Most have a kernel of truth, but these myths distract us from focusing on the most important drivers of incarceration. The overcriminalization of drug use, the use of private prisons, and low-paid or unpaid prison labor are among the most contentious issues in criminal justice today because they inspire moral outrage.
But they do not answer the question of why most people are incarcerated, or how we can dramatically — and safely — reduce our use of confinement. Likewise, emotional responses to sexual and violent offenses often derail important conversations about the social, economic, and moral costs of incarceration and lifelong punishment. Focusing on the policy changes that can end mass incarceration, and not just put a dent in it, requires the public to put these issues into perspective.
Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of almost half a million people, 4 and nonviolent drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system.
Police still make over 1 million drug possession arrests each year, 5 and many of these arrests do lead to prison sentences. Drug arrests continue to give residents of over-policed communities criminal records , hurting their employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses. But at the state and local levels, far more people are locked up for violent and property offenses than for drug offenses alone. As it happens, some of the boldest strategies for reforming the criminal justice system — such as heavy investments in social services and community-based alternatives to incarceration — benefit not only those with substance use disorders , but people at risk of incarceration for any offense.
Slideshow 3. Swipe for more detail on the War on Drugs. Nevertheless, a range of private industries and even some public agencies continue to profit from mass incarceration. Many city and county jails rent space to other agencies , including state prison systems, 7 the U. Private companies are frequently granted contracts to operate prison food and health services often so bad they result in major lawsuits , and prison and jail telecom and commissary functions have spawned multi-billion dollar private industries. By privatizing services like phone calls, medical care and commissary, prisons and jails are unloading the costs of incarceration onto incarcerated people and their families, trimming their budgets at an unconscionable social cost.
Private prisons and jails hold less than 8 percent of all incarcerated people, making them a relatively small part of a mostly publicly-run correctional system. Simply put, private companies using prison labor are not what stands in the way of ending mass incarceration, nor are they the source of most prison jobs. In at least five states, those jobs pay nothing at all.
Moreover, work in prison is compulsory, with little regulation or oversight, and incarcerated workers have few rights and protections. Forcing people to work for low or no pay and no benefits allows prisons to shift the costs of incarceration to incarcerated people — hiding the true cost of running prisons from most Americans. But while remaining in the community is certainly preferable to being locked up, the conditions imposed on those under supervision are often so restrictive that they set people up to fail. Slideshow 4. Swipe for more detail about what the data on recividism really shows.
Finally, we come to the myth that people who commit violent or sexual crimes are incapable of rehabilitation and thus warrant many decades or even a lifetime of punishment. If we are serious about ending mass incarceration, we will have to change our responses to more serious and violent crime. What changes when we define recidivism different ways? We discuss the implications. As long as we are considering recidivism rates as a measure of public safety risk, we should also consider how recidivism is defined and measured.
But what is a valid sign of criminal offending: self-reported behavior, arrest, conviction, or incarceration? Defining recidivism as re-arrest casts the widest net and results in the highest rates, but arrest does not suggest conviction, nor actual guilt. More useful measures than re-arrest include conviction for a new crime, re-incarceration, or a new sentence of imprisonment; the latter may be most relevant, since it measures offenses serious enough to warrant a prison sentence.
Importantly, people convicted of violent offenses have the lowest recidivism rates by each of these measures. However, the recidivism rate for violent offenses is a whopping 48 percentage points higher when re-arrest, rather than imprisonment, is used to define recidivism. The longer the time period, the higher the reported recidivism rate — but the lower the actual threat to public safety. A related question is whether it matters what the post-release offense is. If someone convicted of robbery is arrested years later for a liquor law violation, it makes no sense to view this very different, much less serious, offense the same way we would another arrest for robbery.
A final note about recidivism: While policymakers frequently cite reducing recidivism as a priority, few states collect the data that would allow them to monitor and improve their own performance in real time. For example, the Council of State Governments asked correctional systems what kind of recidivism data they collect and publish for people leaving prison and people starting probation.
What they found is that states typically track just one measure of post-release recidivism, and few states track recidivism while on probation at all:. The data supports changing our responses to some of the crimes that scare people most: people convicted of sexual assault and homicide are actually among the least likely to reoffend after release.
More broadly, people convicted of any violent offense are less likely to be re-arrested in the years after release than those convicted of property, drug, or public order offenses.
Yet people convicted of violent offenses often face decades of incarceration, and those convicted of sexual offenses can be committed to indefinite confinement or stigmatized by sex offender registries long after completing their sentences. To understand the main drivers of incarceration, the public needs to see how many people are incarcerated for different offense types. But the reported offense data oversimplifies how people interact with the criminal justice system in two important ways: it reports only one offense category per person, and it reflects the outcome of the legal process, obscuring important details of actual events.
First, when a person is in prison for multiple offenses, only the most serious offense is reported. This makes it hard to grasp the complexity of criminal events, such as the role drugs may have played in violent or property offenses. We must also consider that almost all convictions are the result of plea bargains , where defendants plead guilty to a lesser offense, possibly in a different category, or one that they did not actually commit.
Feb 2, Florida will probably have to start letting convicts out of their cells unless something is done quickly to relieve overcrowding in the state prison. by early release credits and continued prison construction if Florida is to respond . cept new inmates six times in due to overcrowding.4 Signifi- cantly.
Secondly, many of these categories group together people convicted of a wide range of offenses. It also includes offenses that the average person may not consider to be murder at all. In particular, the felony murder rule says that if someone dies during the commission of a felony, everyone involved can be as guilty of murder as the person who pulled the trigger. Acting as lookout during a break-in where someone was accidentally killed is indeed a serious offense, but many may be surprised that this can be considered murder in the U.
For example, there are over 8, youth behind bars for technical violations of their probation, rather than for a new offense. Turning to the people who are locked up criminally and civilly for immigration-related reasons , we find that 13, people are in federal prisons for criminal convictions of immigration offenses, and 10, more are held pretrial by U.
The vast majority of people incarcerated for criminal immigration offenses are accused of illegal entry or illegal re-entry — in other words, for no more serious offense than crossing the border without permission. Slideshow 5. Swipe for more detail about youth confinement, immigrant confinement and psychiatric confinement. Another 49, people are civilly detained by U.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE not for any crime, but simply for their undocumented immigrant status. ICE detainees are physically confined in federally-run or privately-run immigration detention facilities, or in local jails under contract with ICE. An additional 11, unaccompanied children are held in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement ORR , awaiting placement with parents, family members, or friends. While these children are not held for any criminal or delinquent offense, most are held in shelters or even juvenile placement facilities under detention-like conditions.
Adding to the universe of people who are confined because of justice system involvement, 22, people are involuntarily detained or committed to state psychiatric hospitals and civil commitment centers. Many of these people are not even convicted, and some are held indefinitely. While these facilities aren't typically run by departments of correction, they are in reality much like prisons.
Silverman, I. Those laws and other modest adjustments have helped reduce the federal prison population , but the Bureau of Prisons is still struggling with overcrowding. Some Republicans, though, strongly oppose the more expansive bill. People convicted of some of the most serious felonies, such as first-degree sexual assault, are not eligible, nor are those serving life sentences. Sorry, your blog cannot share posts by email.
While this report provides the most inclusive view of the various systems of confinement in the U. There are another , people on parole and a staggering 3. Given the onerous conditions of probation and the steep consequences for technical violations, policymakers should be wary of "alternatives to incarceration" that can easily lead to incarceration for people who pose no threat to public safety. Beyond identifying the parts of the criminal justice system that impact the most people, we should also focus on who is most impacted and who is left behind by policy change. Poverty, for example, plays a central role in mass incarceration.
People in prison and jail are disproportionately poor compared to the overall U. As a result, people with low incomes are more likely to face the harms of pretrial detention.
Poverty is not only a predictor of incarceration; it is also frequently the outcome, as a criminal record and time spent in prison destroys wealth , creates debt, and decimates job opportunities. It's no surprise that people of color — who face much greater rates of poverty — are dramatically overrepresented in the nation's prisons and jails. S residents.
The same is true for women, whose incarceration rates have for decades risen faster than men's, and who are often behind bars because of financial obstacles such as an inability to pay bail. As policymakers continue to push for reforms that reduce incarceration, they should avoid changes that will widen disparities, as has happened with juvenile confinement and with women in state prisons.