Five myths about prison growth.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Feb. 19 2009 3:08 PM

Reform School 

Five myths about prison growth dispelled.

(Continued from Page 1)

Myth No. 3: Technical parole and probation violations drive prison population growth. Recent advances in drug testing and other forms of monitoring have sparked concern that we are sending more and more parolees back to prison for minor infractions. And as with all the factors discussed here, there is a kernel of truth to this one. In 2005, about one-third of all people admitted to prison were on parole at the time (though not necessarily returning because of a violation). But the rate of parolees returning to prison has been stable for the last decade, suggesting that this doesn't account for recent growth.

More important, changes in the number of people being returned to prison from parole closely follow changes in the number of prisoners being paroled out of prison—and there are always more people going out than going in. In other words, the number of parolees returning to prison is rising only because the number of people out on parole is rising.

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Myth No. 4: In the past three decades, we've newly diverged from the rest of the world on punishment. Given that our incarceration rate before the mid-1970s is one-seventh the rate of today, it is easy to think that we're suddenly acting like outliers. But the fact is that American views on punishment have been harsher than Europe's since the birth of this country (although politicians may overestimate the extent to which they must be tough on crime to win elections). More strikingly, if we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we're not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals. Viewed through this lens, what seems remarkable is not the current era of mass incarceration but the 1960s and '70s, during which we emptied the hospitals without filling the prisons. Any reform agenda that does not acknowledge the ingrained nature of our punitive impulses will surely fail.

Myth No. 5: The incarceration boom has had no effect on crime levels. Sometimes, crime rates have fallen as the prison population has risen (the 1990s and 2000s) or risen as the population fell (the 1960s). At other times, however, the crime rate has risen even as the prison population also rose (the 1970s and '80s). Perhaps, people argue, no real relationship exists between the two.

But this is not the right way to think about the problem. We have to ask what the crime rate would have been but for a given number of prisoners, and simple population trends cannot answer this. The best numbers available, controlling for a host of challenging statistical problems, suggest that the growth in prison populations contributed to up to 30 percent of the crime drop during the 1990s.

Thus, reducing prison populations may lead to more crime. But only to a point. Many of the low-level offenders we lock up today do not pose serious threats, so if we let them out first or don't send them to prison to begin with, the effect may be initially slight. Moreover, while prison has helped reduce crime, it's not the most efficient tool we have. A dollar spent on police, for example, is 20 percent more effective than a dollar spent on prisons.

Given that, what's the most cost-effective prison reform strategy? We need to stop admitting many minor offenders, even if they're serving only short sentences. We need to focus less on high-profile drug statutes and more on the ways small-fry drug convictions cause later crimes to result in longer sentences. Once we start admitting fewer people to prison, we should shift money from prisons to police. If this seems like tinkering, rather than a sweeping fix, that's because it is. See Myth No. 4: Reformers shouldn't waste their breath trying to turn us into Europe.

John Pfaff is an associate professor of law at Fordham Law School.

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