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NY Times Tackles Mass Incarceration

Today’s NY Times features a story by John Tierny, and corresponding profiles of four inmates, that addresses the growing shift away from the “lock ‘em and throw away the key” sentencing policies that came into vogue in the 1980s. Describing the story of a 27-year-old female, nonviolent, first-time federal drug offender who was sentenced to life imprisonment (without the possibility of parole, which the federal system discontinued in 1987), Tierney offers:


Her sentence reflected a revolution in public policy, often called mass incarceration, that appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists. They point to evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it.
Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.
But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, causing too many Americans like Ms. George to be locked up for too long at too great a price — economically and socially.
The criticism is resonating with some state and federal officials, who have started taking steps to stop the prison population’s growth.[…]
The article further confirms the negligible impact of the mass incarceration of drug offenders:
Longer sentences undoubtedly keep criminals off the streets. But researchers question whether this incapacitation effect, as it is known, provides enough benefits to justify the costs, especially when drug dealers are involved. Locking up a rapist makes the streets safer by removing one predator, but locking up a low-level drug dealer creates a job opening that is quickly filled because so many candidates are available.
The number of drug offenders behind bars has gone from fewer than 50,000 in 1980 to more than 500,000 today, but that still leaves more than two million people on the street who sell drugs at least occasionally, according to calculations by Peter H. Reuter, a criminologist at the University of Maryland. He and Jonathan P. Caulkins of Carnegie Mellon University say there is no way to lock up enough low-level dealers and couriers to make a significant impact on supply, and that is why cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs are as readily available today as in 1980, and generally at lower prices.
The researchers say that if the number of drug offenders behind bars was halved — reduced by 250,000 — there would be little impact on prices or availability.