By Adam Schaffer for WOLA and Colectivo de Estudio Drogas y Derecho.
BECAUSE OF INCREASES IN THE NUMBER OF PROSECUTIONS AND THE IMPOSITION OF LONGER SENTENCES FOR BOTH VIOLENT AND NON-VIOLENT OFFENSES, THE U.S. PRISON POPULATION HAS SOARED OVER THE PAST FOUR DECADES. From 1973 to 2009, the number of people imprisoned in state and federal prisons grew by 700 percent. While the prison population has seen slight reductions in recent years, more than 1.5 million people remain imprisoned today. On any given day, another 731,000 are incarcerated in local jails.
THE INCARCERATION RATE FOR DRUG OFFENSES SAW A PARTICULARLY MASSIVE INCREASE. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses surged from 15 per 100,000 to 143 per 100,000, a nearly ten-fold increase.
THE RISE IN INCARCERATION DID NOT SIGNIFICANTLY IMPROVE PUBLIC SAFETY. While so-called “tough on crime” policies and long sentences were designed to reduce crime, their effects were negligible at best. Instead, they fueled distrust of police, undermined confidence in the fairness of the justice system, and contributed to wasteful spending. The disastrous effects of these policies have fallen most heavily on minority communities, who are arrested and incarcerated at significantly higher rates.
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM HAS LED TO NEW INITIATIVES TO CURB MASS INCARCERATION, PARTICULARLY FOR NON-VIOLENT OFFENDERS—BUT MUCH MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE. Growing recognition across the political spectrum of the failures of mass incarceration has fueled the momentum of reform efforts, and some initiatives have successfully reduced prison populations. Reductions to date, however, have been minimal and considerably broader reforms are needed to significantly reduce the U.S. prison population.