Prison System in America

II. The Transition From 20th- to 21st-Century Imprisonment

For several decades prior to the 1970s, what was most notable was the remarkable stability of the incarceration rate, averaging about 110 per 100,000 (excluding jail populations). While there were minor fluctuations in this period, the rate remained very stable, which led some criminologists to hypothesize a “theory of the stability of punishment,” suggesting that a given society develops a certain culture regarding the level of punishment with which it is comfortable, and then, consciously or not, adjusts its policies and practices to meet this desired outcome. In 1972, federal and state prisons held 196,000 inmates for a prison incarceration rate of 93 per 100,000. In addition, about 130,000 inmates were held in jails, resulting in about 1 out of every 625 adults serving time in jails or prisons.

At the time, this level of imprisonment was viewed as egregiously high among those supporting a moratorium on prison construction, and in 1972, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency passed a policy statement calling for a halt to prison construction in the United States. In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed,” and concluded that “the prison, the reformatory, and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it” (National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1973, p. 1).

Despite these sentiments, a prison expansion unprecedented in human history was about to take place. No one would have predicted that a large-scale imprisonment binge would characterize the next three decades. Many scholars point to the 1974 “Martinson report” (known for finding that “nothing works” to rehabilitate criminals) as signaling the death knell of the rehabilitation ideal in the United States, and since the late 1970s policy and public opinion has shifted toward more certain and severe punishment characterized by longer prison terms for an ever-increasing number of offense types.

The imprisonment binge over the past 30 years has resulted in a 700% increase in the U.S. incarceration rate to 762 per 100,000 and approximately 2.3 million in prisons (1.5 million) and jails (800,000) in 2007 (The Sentencing Project). With 1 out of every 100 adults incarcerated, the United States boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate (well ahead of the Russian rate of 635 per 100,000) and accounts for about 25% of the entire world’s imprisoned population. At present, this trend shows no sign of reversing. In addition, nearly 800,000 prisoners per year are now being released from prisons and jails into communities across the United States—the majority of whom will be readmitted within 3 years. The staggering growth in imprisonment in the United States and its scope compared to the past has generated several unique situations and circumstances not previously seen or anticipated. These include but are not limited to prison hosting, coercive mobility and its effects, issues associated with prisoner reentry, a host of “invisible punishments” and their consequences, and the impact of mass imprisonment on minority groups—particularly African Americans.

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