Can the U.S. Cut Mass Incarceration?

Leading criminologists tout progress made on state sentencing reforms, saying it proves there are feasible ways to cut the U.S. inmate population and reduce crime at the same time.

The “changed” national conversation about who we send to jails and prisons–and for how long—offers hope for reductions in the number of Americans behind bars, say leading criminologists.

Experts at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, which ended Saturday, said several jurisdictions had already demonstrated it was possible to reduce inmate populations, which topped 2.2 million nationwide in the last official count, without endangering public safety.

Yet a new survey released before the conference pointed in the opposite direction.

The Council of State Governments Justice Center asked all states where they saw their prison population total going in the next few years. Twenty-one of 29 states that had a projection believed the inmate count would rise.

Despite this finding, several participants in a panel discussion Friday on sentencing reform in the Trump era insisted that there are feasible ways to cut the U.S. imprisonment level, perhaps sharply.

James Austin, a consultant to states on prison issues, pointed to New York City and the states of California and New Jersey as places that have managed to have both fewer inmates and less crime.

Austin contends that the national prisoner total could be cut in half by two straightforward steps: reducing the average time that a person is held in custody from the current 29 months to an average of 21 months, and stopping the common practice of sending those on probation and parole behind bars for violating rules.

Contributing to what Austin sees as an inmate overload is too many arrests by police officers at the front end of the process, he said.

Austin chided criminologists for adding to the public perception that fewer prisoners means more crime in the streets, a supposed linkage he says has been disproved in several major states.

Criminologist Todd Clear of Rutgers University agreed with Austin that sending fewer people to prison for less time is the key to eliminating mass incarceration.

In Clear’s view, the view about incarceration among much of the public and their elected representatives already has improved.

Amid continuing lower crime rates around the nation than were recorded in the 1990s, “the conversation is different — something has changed,” Clear said.

As evidence, he asserted that there has been little public outrage about former prisoners who commit new crimes.

While such incidents are bound to happen, the public understands that some criminals “make terrible mistakes” but violence is not on the rise overall, he added.

Clear observed that most political candidates no longer are running on “tough on crime” platforms.

President Trump regularly does use such rhetoric, but the criminology panelists said they didn’t believe that his administration will have much impact on criminal justice policy at the state and local level.

Eric Cadora of the Justice Mapping Center, which has created maps showing the origins of prisoners, parolees and probationers, originated the term “justice reinvestment,” a program that seeks to spend less tax money on housing prisoners and reinvest it in better local services or convicted people.

Cadora contended at the criminology discussion that reducing prison populations is an issue of “managing local discretion” among police officer, prosecutors and other public officials. A focus on changing state sentencing laws will not solve the problem, he said, because state legislatures are reluctant to tell officials in local areas, where crime problems may differ dramatically, what to do.

The federal government is continuing to spend money on justice reinvestment plans for states and they are helping to reduce inmate totals, said Pennsylvania Corrections Secretary John Wetzel, who also spoke on the panel.

Wetzel said that his counterparts in many states are backing the program, and it should get credit for modest prison count declines in some of them. He declared himself “optimistic” that the trend would continue.

In Pennsylvania, where the criminology conference was held, Gov. Tom Wolf last year hailed a decline of nearly 850 inmates in 2015, which he said was the largest one-year decline in population over the last 40 years. Yet the total remained just under 50,000, each of whom cost the state $41,000 annually to incarcerate.

Wetzel had presided earlier last week at a “50-State Summit” on criminal justice in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the Association of State Correctional Administrators, and the U.S. Justice Department.

A survey of states presented at the conference was not so optimistic as was the criminologists panel.

Six states projected double-digit increases in prisoners over the next decade, including Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico and West Virginia. Kansas and Kentucky have been hailed as successes of the “justice reinvestment” process.

Although most of the states on the list have smaller populations, Minnesota, Ohio and Virginia also appear.

Panelists last week agreed that it doesn’t have to happen. The most often cited example is Texas, which in 2007 had 155,000 inmates and a projection of adding 17,000 in future years in $523 million worth of new prisons.

Alarmed legislators took the justice reinvestment approach, and the state not only has many fewer inmates, about 141,000, but has been able to close several prisons.

One somewhat overlooked component of public opinion on prison issues is crime victims, argued consultant Austin.

He said the public would support changes in sentencing policy if more people come to understand that crime victimization is a “rare event” and if state governments stopped doing a “terrible job” helping crime victims and “fully compensated” them.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.