Focus Policy Blog


Effecting Change Through Incarceration Reform

In a new discussion paper released by the Hamilton Project, authors examine ways to reduce incarceration rates without negatively impacting crime rates. It is important to consider ways to address this issue because increased incarceration rates are not decreasing crime rates.  Since the 1990s, the nation’s incarceration rates have significantly increased without an improvement in crime rates.  Also, incarceration disparately impacts men, minorities, and people who have low levels of education because these are the groups that are incarcerated more than any other.

The prison population is rising with more inmates entering the prison system who are serving longer sentences for less serious crimes. As of 2011, for example, 2.2 million people have been incarcerated, half of whom are in state prisons. From 1975 to 2009, the per capita rate of those incarcerated has increased by five times — 500 per 100,000 people were incarcerated in 2009 compared to the 100 people per 100,000 who were incarcerated in 1975.

There are significant implications of such high rates of incarceration. Incarceration affects not only inmates, but also their families and communities.  For instance, young men who are incarcerated in their young twenties often enter into a cycle of repeat incarceration during a time where critical areas of the transition into adulthood normally happen such as establishing a career and starting a family.  Repeat incarceration hinders this normal transition and it makes it difficult to reenter society as a contributing citizen.

Incarceration becomes less effective the more the prison population increases, but this is a problem that prison reform can remedy. Studies of prison populations in Italy and California demonstrate this point. In Italy, there was a sharp downturn in the instances of crime with the reduction in number of prison admissions as well as a shortening of the length of the prison sentences.  Similarly, prison reform in California led to an immediate reduction in the prison population and no increase in crime rates.

Following are suggested ways to reform prison sentencing and parole policies:

  • Rework truth-in-sentencing laws to reduce the frequency of inmates having to serve minimum portions of their sentences
  • Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences altogether in most circumstances
  • Establish state incentives to encourage local districts to reduce their use of state prisons

Patrice Garnette, Joint Center Graduate Scholar, The George Washington University Law School