The Truth about Mass Incarceration


Stephanos Bibas makes the conservative case for prison reform, in National Review:

Two centuries ago, the shift from shaming and corporal punishments to imprisonment made punishment an enduring status. Reformers had hoped that isolation and Bible reading in prison would induce repentance and law-abiding work habits, but it didn’t turn out that way. Now we warehouse large numbers of criminals, in idleness and at great expense. By exiling them, often far away, prison severs them from their responsibilities to their families and communities, not to mention separating them from opportunities for gainful work. This approach is hugely disruptive, especially when it passes a tipping point in some communities and exacerbates the number of fatherless families. And much of the burden falls on innocent women and children, who lose a husband, boyfriend, or father as well as a breadwinner.

Even though wrongdoers may deserve to have the book thrown at them, it is not always wise to exact the full measure of justice. There is evidence that prison turns people into career criminals. On the one hand, it cuts prisoners off from families, friends, and neighbors, who give them reasons to follow the law. Responsibilities as husbands and fathers are key factors that tame young men’s wildness and encourage them to settle down: One longitudinal study found that marriage may reduce reoffending by 35 percent. But prison makes it difficult to maintain families and friendships; visiting in person is difficult and time-consuming, prisons are often far away, and telephone calls are horrifically expensive.

On the other hand, prison does much to draw inmates away from lawful work. In the month before their arrest, roughly three quarters of inmates were employed, earning the bulk of their income lawfully. Many were not only taking care of their children but helping to pay for rent, groceries, utilities, and health care. But prison destroys their earning potential. Prisoners lose their jobs on the outside. Felony convictions also disqualify ex-cons from certain jobs, housing, student loans, and voting. Michigan economics professor. Michael Mueller-Smith finds that spending a year or more in prison reduces the odds of post-prison employment by 24 percent and increases the odds of living on food stamps by 5 percent.

Conversely, prisons are breeding grounds for crime. Instead of working to support their own families and their victims, most prisoners are forced to remain idle. Instead of having to learn vocational skills, they have too much free time to hone criminal skills and connections. And instead of removing wrongdoers from criminogenic environments, prison clusters together neophytes and experienced recidivists, breeding gangs, criminal networks, and more crime. Thus, Mueller-Smith finds, long sentences on average breed much more crime after release than they prevent during the sentence. 

More here.