II. How We Got Here
The extraordinary growth in the number of people incarcerated in America can be traced, on one level, to a series of public policy choices made by public officials: legislators who enacted sentencing reforms such as mandatory minimums, truth-in-sentencing laws, parole abolition, and three-strikes laws; prosecutors, judges, and parole board members who exercised their discretion in favor of more frequent and longer prison sentences; and parole and probation officers who were more likely to find violations of conditions of supervision and return parolees and probationers to prison. These shifts in public policy, in turn, reflected a political calculation that the public wanted its elected and appointed officials to be tough on crime.
According to an analysis by Blumstein and Beck (2005), the criminal justice system has indeed become more punitive over time. The probability that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13% to 28%, between 1980 and 2001. This analysis also underscores an important point: The growth of the prison population between these years is not due to the increase in crime. In fact, the prison population continued to grow throughout the 1990s despite a decrease in crime rates. In other words, America is placing more people in prison not because there is more crime but because America has chosen to rely on more imprisonment as a response to crime.
The nation’s war on drugs has also been a major factor in the growth in imprisonment in America. Whereas the per capita rate of incarceration for most serious crimes increased significantly between 1980 and 2001—for murder (201%), sexual assault (361%), robbery (65%), and assault (306%)—the rate of incarceration for drug offenses increased by 930% (Travis, 2005). The level of punitiveness for drug offenses also increased during this time frame. In 1980, there were 2 prison admissions for every 100 drug arrests. By 1996, the rate had increased to 8 prison admissions for every 100 drug arrests. It is clear that the nation has decided that prison is the preferred response to drug crime and, as a result, 20% of the state prison population and over half of the federal prison population now comprises people convicted of drug crimes (Sabol et al., 2007), up from 6% and 25% in 1980.
There is a third factor contributing to the growth in incarceration: the fact that people in prison are serving more time than they did before. Between 1990 and 1999, the average time a person spent in prison increased 32% (Hughes, Wilson, & Beck, 2001). The increase in the amount of time being served by people in prison can be attributed to three developments. First, legislatures have increased the length of prison sentences overall by implementing mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws. Second, over the past quarter century, the nation has witnessed a significant shift in sentencing philosophy. For a 50-year period prior to the mid- 1970s, every state in the nation, and the federal government, operated under a regime of indeterminate sentencing. Under this system, state legislatures would set broad ranges of possible sentences that could be imposed for various offenses; judges would impose sentences within those ranges; and parole boards would typically determine the actual date of the release from prison, weighing a variety of factors, including the prisoner’s progress toward rehabilitation and his or her prospects for success upon return to the community. Beginning in 1976, a number of states passed legislation abolishing release by parole boards. In that year, about two thirds of prisoners were released by parole boards; by the end of the century, that level had declined to one quarter (Travis, 2005). Over roughly the same period of time, the nation increased the level of supervision—and the nature of supervision—of those released fromprison. For four decades prior to 1970, about 2 of 5 prisoners released to the community were placed on parole supervision.As a result of the new legislation in the late 1970s, the number of individuals supervised by parole agencies ballooned from 220,000 in 1980 to 725,000 by the end of the century.
The third development is that simultaneously, the nature of supervision changed, evolving away from a servicesand- supervision mission toward a surveillance and law enforcement mission (Petersilia, 2003). Under this new mind-set, which reflected the general national preference for retribution over rehabilitation, parole agents were more inclined to find violations of the conditions of supervision and more likely to revoke supervision and return the parolee to prison. As a result, the number of parole revocations, including for violations of technical conditions of parole and for new crimes, increased sevenfold between 1980 and 2000. In 1980, only 17% of state prison admissions were parole violators; by 1999, that percentage had doubled, to 35% (Travis & Lawrence, 2002). Thus, this growth in the population under parole supervision, combined with the increased use of parole revocations, has resulted in an even larger prison population.
The reality that America now leads the world in its rate of incarceration, and has departed radically from its own history of low incarceration rates, can be traced to a variety of factors, but the predominant factor is the emergence of an unprecedented level of punitiveness toward people who violate the law. Running through this public posture is a powerful racial dimension. As was demonstrated by the infamousWillie Horton episode from the 1988 presidential campaign, racial stereotypes are often infused into public discussions about crime policy, and we face the undeniable truth that the impact of mass incarceration, and the unprecedented level of prisoner reentry, is felt most acutely in urban communities of color.