In the 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared the “War on Drugs” in 1971, incarceration has evolved into the centerpiece of efforts in the United States to both control crime and punish wrongdoing. By the time the Crime Bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, the die was cast: being “tough-on-crime” had become de rigueur for lawmakers regardless of party affiliation.
Rehabilitation and reintegration—once important goals of corrections policy—were neglected in favor of retribution and incapacitation. Three-strikes laws as well as mandatory and lengthy custodial penalties for an expanding list of offenses were the norm. The Crime Bill enshrined this trend on the federal level. And it accelerated it on the state level by incentivizing parole abolition and the adoption of truth-in-sentencing laws with funding for prison construction.
In 1972, 360,000 people were incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails; by 2003, the total incarcerated population surpassed two million, representing a more than 500 percent increase in a period when the U.S. population increased by just 37 percent. A prison a week was opened from 1985 to 2000. Today the United States is undisputedly the world’s leading jailer—just five percent of the world’s population, we hold close to 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. At more than 700 per 100,000 residents, the U.S. rate of incarceration is more than twice the rate of 90 percent of the world’s countries.
Released in April, the authoritative account of the growth and consequences of incarceration in the United States by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) concludes that we have “gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits […] that the high rates of incarceration themselves constitute a source of injustice and, possibly, social harm.” And a previous NAS report on adolescent brain development determined that science should ground policies relating to youth, a departure from earlier super predator theories.
Indeed, the costs have been exorbitant, both in outright expenditures (in 2010, spending on corrections on the federal, state, and local levels topped $80 billion) and in the loss of generations of young men, particularly young men of color, to long prison sentences. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times, and Hispanics at nearly twice, the rate of whites. Not only are they lost to their families and communities for those years, but wide-ranging collateral consequences—from denial of voting rights and public benefits to housing and work restrictions—can follow them for many years after release, deeply impairing their ability to live productive and healthy lives, and build productive and healthy communities.