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Does Mass Incarceration Work?

June 26, 2017

Decades ago, the answer would have been yes. This was primarily due to concern over the widespread use of drugs and the desire of policy makers to stop drug use from spreading across the country. 

But in more recent years, a highly polarized debate has risen over the value and the impact of mass incarceration as light has been shed on the nation’s overpopulated prison system. Policy makers today recognize that the rapidly expanding penal system initiatives in the 1980s and the 1990s have imposed fiscal burdens and intangible social costs ultimately producing discord between government officials and civil liberty bodies. With an administration change and new directives from the U.S. Department of Justice, the future of the prison system has all sides of the issue questioning what is next for the staggering prison population.

The root cause of mass incarceration began with the racially disparate persecution of men for non-violent drug crimes. This overpopulated prisons with non-violent offenders. The “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” promises made by politicians in the 1980s and the 1990s [1] created a surge of mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, and life without parole judicial decisions leaving the non-violent offenders in prison [2]. Today, there are 34 state prison systems at well over 100 percent capacity and 8 state prison systems over 97 percent [3]. The highly cited statistics speak for themselves: the United States holds 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners [4] amassing a total of 2.2 million people – a 500 percent increase over the last few decades [5].

Selected incarceration rates worldwide. Source: Wikimedia Commons.Selected incarceration rates worldwide. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Annual day-to-day prison operations expenditures range from $10,000 to $50,000 per prisoner [6] with an average cost of $31,977.65 per inmate [7]. Mass incarceration created the business of keeping people in prison. Seeing the opportunity for profit, corporations owned and operated private prisons. In the 1980s, private prisons were seen as the most cost-effective solution when policymakers struggled with new strains brought on by harsh sentencing laws [8]. The Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) conducted a national study and found that the average savings from privatization were only about 1 percent compared to the previously projected 20 percent [9]. In the last 20 years, corporation profits from prisons have increased more than 500 percent [10]. The industry of private prisons generates billions of dollars of revenue every year and gives a significant portion to politicians which has called the intersection between prison privatization and politics into question [11]. For example, one of the largest for-profit prison corporations, GEO Group, and another private prison operator, CoreCivic, each donated $250,000 to support President Trump’s inauguration [12].

Given the decline in crime in the last 10 years, supporters of mass incarceration believe the high cost of incarceration is thoroughly justified. But it does not appear that mass incarceration has had a direct effect on crime rates. Over the time period that the rate of incarceration tripled, violent crimes reported to the police doubled and property crimes rose by 30 percent so [13]. A study by the Brennan Centre for Justice found that only 12 percent, at most, of the reduction in property crimes is attributed to the rate of imprisonment [14]. Economists believe this has to do with crime elasticity. They find that as crime declines from increased incarceration, a certain percentage decline in crime will mean less and less averted crimes incrementally, a sad truth for policymakers.

Chart showing trends in violent crime rates by gender in the U.S., from 1973 to 2003. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Chart showing trends in violent crime rates by gender in the U.S., from 1973 to 2003. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report highlighting that prison overcrowding has become a serious issue in the criminal justice system [15]. In December 2016, a government panel recommended that the Department of Homeland Security continue to use private immigrant detention centers. Director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project David Fathi argued the continued use of for-profit facilities foreshadows something more worrisome in the future. More recently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions reversed a directive [16] from the Obama administration which sought to phase out the use of private prisons [17]. Sessions wrote, “The memorandum changed long-standing policy and practice, and impaired the Bureau’s ability to meet the future needs of the federal correctional system,” [18]. This memorandum helped private prison share prices begin an upward climb after a severe plummet the previous year. Critics of the memorandum argue that the new administration is rewarding its donors by reversing the Obama’s administration directive [19]. Does mass incarceration work? The answer depends on who you ask and what that particular group desires: profiting corporations, policymakers, or the 2.2 million locked up across the country.

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  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] “The moral failures of American’s prison-industrial complex,” The Economist, July 20, 2015, http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2015/07/criminal-justice-and-mass-incarceration

  [2] Adam Gopnik, “How we misunderstand mass incarceration,” The New Yorker, April 10, 2017,  http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/04/10/how-we-misunderstand-mass-incarceration

  [3] Paige Harrison and Allen Beck, “Prisoners in 2004,” Bulletin of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005, UHhttp://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/p04.pdf

  [4] Lorna Collier, “Incarceration Nation,” American Psychological Association, Vol 45, No. 9, October 2014, http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/10/incarceration.aspx)

  [5] “Trends in U.S. Corrections,” The Sentencing Project, March 2017, http://sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf)

  [6] George Hill and Paige Harrison, “Prisoners under State or Federal Jurisdiction,” National Prisoner Statistics Data Series (NPS-1), U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2004, http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/data/corpop02.csv

  [7] Sarah Qureshi, “Annual determination of average cost of incarceration,” Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice, July 19, 2016, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2016/07/19/2016-17040/annual-determination-of-average-cost-of-incarceration

  [8] Abigail Geiger, “U.S. private prison population has declined in recent years,” Pew Research Center, April 11, 2017 http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/11/u-s-private-prison-population-has-declined-in-recent-years/

  [9] James Austin, Ph.D. and Garry Coventry, Ph.D. “Emerging Issues on Privatized Prisons,” Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, February 2001, https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/bja/181249.pdf

  [10] Christian Henrichson and Ruth Delaney, “The price of prisons: what incarceration costs taxpayers,” Vera Institute of Justice, February 2012, http://eji.org/mass-incarceration

  [11] Matt Zapotosky, “Justice Department will again use private prisons,” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/justice-department-will-again-use-private-prisons/2017/02/23/da395d02-fa0e-11e6-be05-1a3817ac21a5_story.html?utm_term=.26d36e38f411

  [12] Fredreka Schouten, “Private prisons back Trump and could see big payoffs with new policies,” USA Today, February 23, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/23/private-prisons-back-trump-and-could-see-big-payoffs-new-policies/98300394/

  [13] Steven Levitt, “The Effect of Prison Population Size on Crime Rates: Evidence from Prison Overcrowding Litigation,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 111, No. 2, May 1996.

  [14] “Jailhouse nation,” The Economist, June 20, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21654619-how-make-americas-penal-system-less-punitive-and-more-effective-jailhouse-nation

  [15] “Corrective Action Report: Prison Crowding,” Federal Bureau of Prisons,  U.S. Department of Justice, October 21, 2002, https://www.justice.gov/archive/ag/annualreports/ar2002/for_app_c/prison_crowding.htm

  [16] Matt Zapotosky, “Justice Department will again use private prisons,” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/justice-department-will-again-use-private-prisons/2017/02/23/da395d02-fa0e-11e6-be05-1a3817ac21a5_story.html?utm_term=.26d36e38f411

  [17] “Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Monitoring of Contract Prisons,” Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, August 2016, https://oig.justice.gov/reports/2016/e1606.pdf#page=2

  [18] Matt Zapotosky, “Justice Department will again use private prisons,” The Washington Post, February 23, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/justice-department-will-again-use-private-prisons/2017/02/23/da395d02-fa0e-11e6-be05-1a3817ac21a5_story.html?utm_term=.26d36e38f411

  [19] Fredreka Schouten, “Private prisons back Trump and could see big payoffs with new policies,” USA Today, February 23, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/02/23/private-prisons-back-trump-and-could-see-big-payoffs-new-policies/98300394/


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