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How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?

December 9, 2016

While mass incarceration has emerged as an urgent national issue to be addressed, the reforms currently offered are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. The country needs bolder solutions.How can we significantly cut the prison population while still keeping the country safe? This report puts forth one answer to that question. Our path forward is not offered as the only answer or as an absolute. Rather, it is meant to provide a starting point for a broader discussion about how the country can rethink and revamp the outdated sentencing edifice of the last four decades. This report is the product of three years of research conducted by one of the nation's leading criminologists, experienced criminal justice lawyers, and statistical researchers. First, we conducted an in-depth examination of the federal and state criminal codes, as well as the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories) to estimate how many people are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. We find that alternatives to incarceration are more effective and just penalties for many lower-level crimes. We also find that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a discrete set of more serious crimes. Second, based on these findings, we propose a new, alternative framework for sentencing grounded in the science of public safety and rehabilitation.Many have argued that regimented sentencing laws should be eliminated and replaced with broad judicial discretion. Others counter that this would reinstate a system wherein judges are free to deliver vastly divergent sentences for the same crime, potentially exacerbating racial disparities and perpetuating the tradition of harsh sentences.This report proposes a new solution, building on these past proposals. We advocate that today's sentencing laws should change to provide default sentences that are proportional to the specific crime committed and in line with social science research, instead of based on conjecture. These defaults should mandate sentences of alternatives to incarceration for lower-level crimes. For some other crimes that warrant incarceration, they should mandate shorter sentences. Judges should have discretion to depart from these defaults in special circumstances, such as a defendant's criminal history, mental health or addiction issues, or specifics of the crime committed. This approach is grounded in the premise that the first principle of 21st century sentencing should be to protect public safety, and that sentences should levy the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal. It aims to create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when needed. Our proposed sentencing defaults for each crime weigh four factors:Seriousness: Murder, for instance, should be treated as a far graver crime than writing a bad check.Victim Impact: If a person has been harmed in the commission of a crime, especially physically, weight toward a more serious sentence.Intent: If the actor knowingly and deliberately violated the law, a more severe sanction may be appropriate.Recidivism: Those more likely to reoffend may need more intervention. Our findings and recommendations, determined by applying the four factors above to the prison population, are detailed below. (The rationale for these factors and our full methodology is described in Appendix A.)

How New York City Reduced Mass Incarceration: A Model for Change?

January 30, 2013

In this report, leading criminologists examine the connection between New York City's shift in policing strategies and the dramatic decrease in the City's incarcerated and correctional population.

Case for Shorter Prison Terms: The Illinois Experience (FOCUS)

July 1, 1994

Prison crowding continues to plague most prison systems. More importantly, it is highly unlikely that the crowding problem will soon disappear. Reducing prison terms is, however, a controversial approach to curbing prison crowding. While the prison system directly benefits from lowered prison populations, there are several potential negative reactions that may result. Crime rates may increase as more prisoners are released ahead of their normal release dates. More importantly, the public may become further disenchanted with what it already perceives as an effective and overly lenient criminal justice system. In this NCCD report, a well-established early-release program, the Illinois Meritorious Good-Time program, is evaluated in terms of its impact on the following four key issues that surround all early release programs: (1) What is the impact of shorter prison terms on controlling prison population growth? (2) What is the impact of shorter prison terms on recidivism rates? (3) What is the impact of shorter prison terms on public safety? (4) What is the impact of shorter prison terms on reducing costs?

How Much Time Do Prisoners Really Do? (FOCUS)

December 1, 1993

With the rise in the crime rate in recent years, short sentences are a major concern of most Americans. In actuality, the high degree of states under-reporting prisoners serving time in prisons tends to cloud our perceptions. The level of under-reporting can be traced to factors which are not accounted for by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), who publish information regarding prisoners who have been released from prison during a specific time period in a number of monographs. These factors include data such as the amount of time spent in local jails in pre-trial status awaiting their transfer to state prisons and periods of confinement associated with re-admission to prison due to violations of parole. Clearly, a more accurate method of measuring length of stay is needed to better inform the decision-making process in corrections policy development.

Reinventing Juvenile Justice

August 15, 1993

Reinventing Juvenile Justice presents an honest, albeit somewhat painful, view of the current status of justice for young offenders. Could it be that the celebrated "children's court" has outlived its usefulness? This central question is raised by the authours in exploring whether the juvenile court can or should survive in the years ahead.

Reforming Florida's Unjust, Costly, and Ineffective Sentencing Laws

January 1, 1993

The past decade has witnessed an interesting experiment in sentencing practices within the state of Florida. During the 1980's, the legislature adopted a number of sentencing reforms including the abolition of parole and indeterminate sentencing and the enactment of various mandatory minimum and Habitual Offender sentencing laws. The Habitual Offender laws state that a population of criminals in Florida are habitually involved in serious criminal activities and are responsible for the majority of crimes committed in Florida. They go on to state that incarcerating these criminals will reduce Florida's crime rate and that the costs of incarcerating those habitual offenders will be offset by savings to public in terms of reduced crime rates and victim losses. Studies conducted by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency conclude that it will be impossible for Florida to avoid either a massive crowding situation or an equally massive prison construction and expansion program, costing hundreds of millions of dollars that the state does not have, unless dramatic and substantial sentencing reforms are immediately adopted.

1991 NCCD Prison Population Forecast: The Impact of Declining Drug Arrests (FOCUS)

December 1, 1991

According to the National Council and Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), prison populations will increase by 35 percent over the next five years under the current criminal justice policies. This rate of growth is significantly lower than NCCD's 1989 estimates of a 60 percent increase over five years. The principal reason for the lower growth rate is a 20 percent reduction in drug arrests, which in turn is reducing projected jail and prison admissions. The declining number of drug arrests are related to the fiscal crisis of state and local governments, drug asset and seizure laws, and lower drug use. However, prison populations will continue to grow despite reductions in admissions due to the passage of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes and lengthier prison terms for certain crimes. Assuming that the 16 states researched are representative of trends that are on-going in other states and the Federal Prison System, the nation's prison population will reach 1 million inmates by 1994.

Escalating the Use of Imprisonment: The Case Study of Florida (FOCUS)

June 1, 1991

During the past five years, Florida has embarked on a policy of incarcerating massive numbers of drug offenders. This policy has accelerated an increase in usage of early release, not only for drug offenders, but also for inmates convicted of violent crimes and those with violent criminal histories. Florida today has the highest rate of prison admissions and the shortest length of stay of any prison system in the country. In addition, its already high crime rate has not been reduced but has increased slightly. A more cost-effective alternative, which the state could utilize, would be placing prison admissions in less expensive and more effective community based programs. Such a policy would result in initiating necessary levels of supervisions and services that many drug offenders and other inmates require, reduce costs to taxpayers, and increase public safety.

America's Growing Correctional-Industrial Complex

December 1, 1990

America faces an enormous public policy dilemma. On one hand we are expending a greater portion of our public dollars on incarcerating, punishing, treating, and controlling persons who are primarily from the lower economic classes in a futile effort to reduce crime. On the other hand, we have set in motion economic policies that serve to widen the gap between the rich and the poor and produce yet another generation of impoverished youths who will likely end up under the control of the correctional system. By escalating the size of the correctional system, we are also increasing the tax burden and diverting billions of dollars from those very public services (education, health, transportation, and economic development) that would reduce poverty, unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and mental illness. Until the long-term consequences of such a controversial and deliberating public policy are recognized and reversed, the hope for a "kinder and gentler" America will be yet another "unmet promise."

Who Goes to Prison?

January 1, 1990

During 1987, approximately 340,000 persons were sent to state and federal prisons. The public, influenced by news stories of exceptionally violent crimes and politicians' rhetoric, believe that all of these prisoners are dangerous and should serve lengthy prison terms. However, the facts suggest otherwise. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency's (NCCD) research has shown that the vast majority of inmates are sentenced for petty crimes such as minor property offenses, minor drug violations, and public disorder. Our nation spends an exorbitant amount of money each year (nearly $7 billion in 1986) to warehouse petty criminals. Instead of escalating the use of expensive and largely ineffective prison sanctions, NCCD suggests that alternative options should be launched that will reduce taxpayer costs, increase restitution to victims, and help ensure that these prisoners will not return to a life of petty crime.

Ranking the Nation's Most Punitive and Costly States (FOCUS)

June 1, 1989

The United States, now with more than 625,000 inmates in prison, has long been recognized as a country that imprisons a large portion of its population. Since 1980, the nation's imprisonment rate has nearly doubled. Presently, over 40 states are under some form of litigation related to crowding or unconstitutional conditions of confinement. As states respond to the pressure of overcrowding, more attention is being paid to comparing states in terms of their use of other forms of control in addition to prisons. States are also concerned with the high costs of these systems. State and federal prison population data, the most obvious means of calculating comparative imprisonment rates, reflect only a single component of a jurisdiction's correctional system and exclude other far reaching forms of incarceration and control, including jails, juvenile facilities, and parole and probation. For these reasons, the domain of prison control must be evaluated in relation to the control exercised by other correctional control systems. If our objective as a nation is to lower crime rates and produce safer communities, these facts argue for a re-examination of a strategy which relies largely on an increasingly expensive and expansive system of punishment and control.

It's About Time: Solving America's Prison Crowding Crisis

January 1, 1987

The United States has embarked on an unprecedented incarceration binge. Since the last decade our nation's prison population has more than doubled. Billions of dollars are being allocated to construct tens of thousands of new cells in a futile effort to catch up with the increasing prison populations. But despite this historic prison construction program, state prison systems will continue to be overcrowded. If we are serious about solving the crowding problem we must come to grips with its true causes and the most direct solution to the problem. We need to re-examine how much time is enough for which offenders within the resources available to our state agencies. And we must ask ourselves if we truly want a society that imprisons an increasing proportion of its black, Hispanic, and disadvantaged citizens with no improvement to public safety. It's about time we chart a different course.