The early American prison systems, such as South Boston's Castle Island Penitentiary built during the Revolutionary War, were based on models of early English workhouses. Since that time, the country's penchant for incarceration has grown, continuing up until the present day. The United States has more prisoners per capita, and more prisons than any other country in the world. An estimated 730 out of every 100,000 people in this country are in jail. However, as the prison population grows, does it follow that we are any safer with more people behind bars?
A recent study put out by the non-partisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University suggests that the high prison rate does not necessarily mean there is less crime. With over 2 million people behind bars in America, the study calls into question the country's prison policies. According to the director of the program responsible for the report, Inimai Chettiar, if putting so many people into jails is not bringing down crime, "why are we incarcerating so many people? We've been able to identify more effective and less intrusive forms of policing that can also bring down crime."
From 1990 to 2013, the crime rates for both violent crime and property crime fell by nearly half, while incarceration rose by more than 60 percent. Before this study, and other evidence which suggests that there is not a direct relationship between crime rates and prison rates, many in law enforcement saw the drop in crime related to increased rates of imprisonment. But the study suggests that the high rate of people in prison may have the perverse effect of reducing the deterrence associated with jail penalties.
The study comes as welcome evidence of a broken justice system to prison reform groups. Rather than putting more people in jail, the drop in crime is more likely impacted by havingmore police officers, aging population, a decrease in alcohol consumption, and better employment opportunities. In some states, recent decreases in prison population have not changed the national trend of lowering crime rates, suggesting that prison reforms will not be met with a renewed crime wave.
With this new information, politicians looking to enact prison reform have added ammunition as they introduce legislative initiatives. Both Democrats and Republicans, from across the country are looking to introduce anti-recidivism programs in exchange for shorter sentences, reductions for non-violent drug offenses, and changes in the way juveniles are treated in the criminal justice system.
Traditionally, it was the more liberal side of the aisle who sought prison reforms. However, in light of the extreme amounts of money governments must allocate to maintaining the prison population, many budget conscious Republicans are joining in the call for reform. Although other GOP members, such as Iowa's Chuck Grassley, opposes the reforms, pointing to the correlation in reduced crime and increased prisoners as evidence that the present policy is working.
Others, such as Vikrant Reddy, of Right On Crime, a conservative pro-reform group, see the political divide as generational. "It's a different world and the younger senators see that different world and they are trying to craft policies that address it," said Reddy.