In 1971 there were fewer than 200,000 inmates serving time in America’s state and federal prisons. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the American public’s fear of rising violent crime—mainly attributable to the explosion of the crack cocaine trade in the 1980s—inspired many politicians to pass laws that imposed harsher sentences on those who engaged in criminal behavior. “Three strikes” laws, which mandate an automatic life sentence for a third felony conviction, and “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which require violent criminals to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, combined with America’s “War on Drugs” to fuel a prison population increase of unprecedented proportions. As of 1996, there were more than 1.7 million people behind bars in the United States. California alone has more prisoners than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Singapore, and the Netherlands combined.
Since the 1970s, over 1,000 new prisons and jails have been constructed to accommodate the massive influx of inmates, and more facilities are needed to relieve the dangerously overcrowded conditions found in most prisons. The cost of convicting, housing, and feeding America’s prisoners now exceeds 120 billion dollars per year. Three states—New York, California and Texas—spend more on incarcerating criminals than on higher education. Because prison construction and maintenance are consuming more from limited government budgets, many social critics are reexamining the effectiveness of increased incarceration as a solution to crime.
Advocates of the get-tough approach to crime argue that the benefits of increased incarceration far outweigh the budgetary difficulties associated with prison expansion. According to Steven D. Levitt, a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows, each criminal taken off the streets eliminates between two and three violent crimes a year, and over ten property crimes. Moreover, Levitt contends, the monetary cost of crime is greater than the cost of incarceration. “The economic benefits alone of preventing those crimes amount to approximately $45,000—well above annual incarceration costs that average $25,000 to $35,000 per prisoner,” declares Levitt.
Furthermore, many critics contend that the increase in incarceration has had a pronounced impact on crime rates. According to 1998 FBI statistics, the overall rate of serious crime is at a 25-year low. Pete du Pont, policy chairman of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), credits the increase in imprisonment with the drop in crime. According to du Pont, harsher sentencing guidelines serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals. “A major reason for the one-third crime slide in the 1990s is that crime has become expensive for adult perpetrators. The likelihood of serving prison time for committing a serious violent crime or a burglary has increased substantially,” du Pont maintains.
Supporters of the get-tough approach to crime believe that society must build more prisons and incarcerate greater numbers of criminals, regardless of the cost, if any further drop in the crime rate is to be made. Rabbi Stephen Fuchs argues that society’s safety is more important than the extra money it would take to keep more criminals in prison for longer periods of time. “To keep violent offenders locked up, society must embark on a massive program to build more prisons. We must, though, be willing to raise the necessary tax dollars. I, for one, am willing to pay the price. Violent felons should never be released for lack of prison space in which to keep them,” says Fuchs.
Opponents of prison expansion, however, argue that America’s policy of incarceration has been a costly failure. Critics of the prison system contend that incarceration is counterproductive in fighting crime because prisons exacerbate criminal behavior rather than deter it. According to Robert W. Winslow, “The nationwide recidivism . . . rate for prison inmates is 70 percent, and graduates of our prison system usually progress toward more serious crimes. This is because prison inmates must learn and adhere to an ‘inmate code’ to survive. This code emphasizes racism, retaliatory violence and predatory attitudes regarding sex and property.”
ther critics of prison expansion argue that increased incarceration has relatively little effect on overall crime rates. According to the National Criminal Justice Commission (NCJC), the majority of the prison population are lowlevel drug dealers. These low-level dealers are easily replaceable because the drug trade is fueled by demand. When one dealer is arrested and convicted, another always steps forward to take his or her place. The NCJC argues that “by the time the criminal justice system has passed through several generations of drug dealers, billions of dollars have been spent and the corner is still scattered with empty vials of crack.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, if the United States continues to incarcerate its citizens at the current rate, one in every 20 Americans born in 1997 can expect to spend some time behind prison walls. Some critics maintain that this statistic is indicative of the failure of America’s prison policy. Opponents of prison expansion argue that the money allocated for prisons would be better spent on education and preventive programs. Gil Kerlikowske, police commissioner of Buffalo, New York, attests that “we’ll win the war on crime when we invest tax dollars in America’s most vulnerable kids, instead of waiting until they become America’s most wanted adults.” In addition to investing in preventive measures, many critics insist that a significant portion of the inmate population would benefit more from intensively supervised probation and drug treatment than serving expensive prison sentences. Supporters of prison expansion, however, maintain that America’s high rate of incarceration is not so much an indication of a failed prison policy as it is an indication of the level of lawlessness in the United States. Economist and legal scholar Michael K. Block declares, “There are too many prisoners because there are too many criminals committing too many crimes.” Prisons: Current Controversies offers a variety of perspectives on the prison system and its role in American society.