‘Tough on crime’ laws raise prison rates

While America had a steady incarceration rate until the late 1970s, it has tripled since 1980 following the imposition of “tough on crime” sentencing policies like mandatory minimums, three strikes laws and longer sentences, particularly for drug offenses. This higher incarceration rate has led to extensive prison overcrowding

The U.S. now has a higher per capita prison population than any other nation in the world, and has a far higher prison population than other industrialized countries, according to statistics from the UK-based International Centre for Prison Studies.

An American citizen is almost five times as likely as a British citizen to be in prison, almost nine times as likely as a German citizen, and more than 10 times as likely as a Swedish citizen.

Americans are even far more likely to be in prison than citizens of countries ruled authoritarian and dictatorial regimes – one and a half times as likely as Russians, more than twice as likely as Iranians, and six times as likely as Chinese or Burmese citizens – though many of these societies corporally punish or execute offenders, often extrajuridicially, rather than imprisoning them, which distorts these statistics.

Incarceration rates show a high degree of racial stratification. Black Americans are more than six times as likely as white Americans to be in prison, Latino Americans almost three times as likely, according to Department of Justice statistics.

Scientific studies of the relationship between sentence length and the likelihood of recidivism are somewhat mixed, but generally either show that there is no relationship between the two, or that inmates who receive longer sentences are slightly more likely to commit further crimes than counterparts who receive shorter sentences for similar offenses.

Criminal justice scholars point to a number of possible causes for this phenomenon, including severed ties with friends, family and communities that are more likely with longer sentences and which inhibit successful re-integration into life outside of prison.

Halfway houses attempt to reduce recidivism rates by providing services to promote reintegration. A study from the Re-entry Resources Center on the effect of halfway houses in Ohio showed that offenders treated in halfway houses had significantly reduced recidivism rates, dropping from 49 percent in the untreated population to 36 in the treated population.

— Bryan Clark

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