Today, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. With over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars, our imprisonment rate is the highest it’s ever been in U.S. history. And yet, our criminal justice system has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness. Across the country, the criminal justice reform conversation is heating up. Each week, we feature our some of the most exciting and relevant news in overincarceration discourse that we’ve spotted from the previous week. Check back weekly for our top picks.
The sharp, sustained decline in crime all across diverse parts of the U.S. for the past twenty years defies a simple explanation. New York City implemented new policing strategies in the early 1990s and has seen huge declines in crime, but crime was already dropping before Guiliani took office, and crime dropped in every other major city across the country, regardless of what their police were doing. Demographic changes would have suggested more crime, not less. As for incarceration, crime rates have dropped more steeply in states that have been locking fewer people up than it has in states that are being tougher on crime. Crime even continued to fall despite the economic collapse in 2008. Common wisdom holds that some combination of all of the above is responsible for the crime decline, in ways that are difficult to understand. But Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum reports on some uncommon wisdom—that crime rates are all about lead exposure. A growing body of research is finding declining crime rates closely track our declining exposure to lead, which can lower cognitive function and impair the part of the brain that controls aggression.
“After more than four decades of a failed experiment, the human cost has become too high. It is time to consider the decriminalization of drug use and the drug market.” That’s the opinion of Nobel-prize-winning economist Gary Becker, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute. Becker joins a growing list of high-profile economists who are publicly arguing that it’s time to stop throwing $40 billion a year down the hole by ending or dramatically reforming our current system of drug prohibition.
If you ask people who have had to endure the mind-altering desolation of solitary confinement for long periods, they will tell you that it is torture. So will experts from the United Nations. What’s more, it’s incredibly expensive—about two to three times the cost of general custody—and bad for public safety; a Colorado study found that over 40% of people damaged and destabilized by prolonged solitary confinement were released directly into the community. For all of these reasons, Washington State has moved away from solitary confinement, replacing the practice with an alternative that provides prisoners with human contact and rehabilitative services.
Since 1980, South Dakota prisons have grown at six times the pace of its population, and it now imprisons about 3,600 people. Absent any changes, that number is projected to hit 4,500 over the next decade, requiring the state to spend $224 million to build two new prisons. To avoid those costs, Gov. Dennis Daugaard put together a working group to recommend reforms to reduce the state’s prison population. Six months later, that effort has culminated in SB70, which would take a number of small steps in the right direction, including presumptive probation for low-level felonies. Meanwhile, South Dakota’s chief justice is calling for more drug courts, as drug possession is the largest contributor to the state’s prisons.
Texas’ 20 state jails have a higher recidivism rate than state prisons: 33 percent of state jail felons are convicted of new crimes, compared with 26 percent of regular prisoners, in part because state jails have fewer treatment and rehabilitation programs than Texas prisons.