Tuesday, October 21, 2014 
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The Growth of Incarceration in the United States
Exploring Causes and Consequences
Incarceration cover

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 After decades of stability, U.S. federal and state prison populations escalated steadily between 1973 and 2009, growing from about 200,000 people to 1.5 million. The increase was driven more by changes in policy -- measures that imprisoned people for a wider range of offenses and imposed longer sentences – than by changes in crime rates. Has this greater reliance on incarceration yielded significant benefits for the nation, or is a change in course needed?

To answer that question, a committee of the National Research Council examined the best available evidence on the effects of high rates of incarceration. The committee found no clear evidence that greater reliance on imprisonment achieved its intended goal of substantially reducing crime. Moreover, the rise in incarceration may have had a wide range of unwanted consequences for society, communities, families, and individuals. The committee’s report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, urges policymakers to reduce the nation’s reliance on incarceration and seek crime-control strategies that are more effective, with better public safety benefits and fewer unwanted consequences.

In a democratic society, policymakers need to consider not only empirical evidence but also principles and values as they determine policies for punishment. The following four principles have helped shape criminal justice in the United States and Europe for hundreds of years. Policymakers should consider these principles as they weigh sentencing and prison policies:
  • Proportionality: Is the severity of sentences appropriate to the seriousness of the crime?
  • Parsimony: Is the punishment the minimum necessary to achieve its intended purpose?
  • Citizenship: Do the conditions and consequences of punishment allow the individual to retain his or her fundamental status as a member of society, rather than violating that status?
  • Social justice: Do prison policies promote and not undermine the nation’s aspirations to be fair in terms of the rights, resources, and opportunities people have?
These principles should complement the objectives of holding offenders accountable and combating crime. Together, they help define a balanced role for the use of incarceration in U.S. society.

To get and overview of the report:

Watch the committee chair Jeremy Travis
give a brief overview of the report
Additional Materials

Related Events

  • Oct 29 - Why the Private Sector should Care about he Growth of Incarceration. Prisoner Reentry Institute, New York
  • Oct 25-28 - IAPC conference, Orlando, FL
  • Nov 6 - APPAM conference, Albuquerque, NM
  • Nov 19-22 - ASC annual meeting, San Francisco, CA
  • Brown University hosted a forum to discuss findings from the report and their implications.    ► More Information      Watch the archived webcast
  • The 2014-15 PRI Occasional Series on Reentry Research will highlight issues raised by the report The Growth of Incarceration in the United States Upcoming Events

In the News

The Growth of Incarceration — Chicago Tonight (October 14, 2014)

Holder: "We Can't Incarcerate Our Way to Public Safety"The Crime Report (September 24, 2014)

More Prisoners, More Problems: Mass Incarceration Climbs Again — Texas Observer (September 16, 2014)

On America's Front Lines
The New York Review of Books (October 9 Issue)

20 Years Later, Parts of Major Crime Bill Viewed as Terrible Mistake
Listen to the Story  |  Read the Article
 (NPR, September 12, 2014)

Holder SpeechLHolder Cites Findings of Report
On May 8, at a symposium of the National Association of Attorneys General, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder discussed the report. Holder called it a "landmark study" that brings into sharp focus the importance of efforts to make the criminal justice system more efficient and effective.  Video Clip | Full Speech

End Mass Incarceration Now
New York Times Op-Ed (May 24, 2014)

Report: US prison rates an ‘injustice’

BBC News (May 2, 2014)

How a national spike in incarcerations affects crime, cost and communities
PBS NewsHour (May 1, 2014)

The meteoric, costly and unprecedented rise of incarceration in America
Washington Post (April 30, 2014)

Press Release (April 30, 2014)

Related Reports

Health and Incarceration L GrayHealth and Incarceration: A Workshop Summary provides perspective on an important set of policy issues. Undertaken in conjunction with the report on the causes and consequences of high rates of incarceration in the United States, it is a valuable compendium of expert insights and policy ideas for health professionals and policy makers working on these issues.

Report Release
(April 30, 2014)

The National Academies