Mass Incarceration Takes Huge Toll on U.S. Society, But Experts Say There Is a Better Way

The economics of mass incarceration are terribly inefficient to keeping crime down, socially destructive and not absolutely necessary, says a White House report.

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WASHINGTON — Experts from across the political spectrum are calling for criminal-justice reform, as a new White House report shows the human and economic costs of the current justice system.

“This is a singular moment in one of the most challenging issues facing our country,” Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, said at a Monday press conference introducing the report “Economic Perspectives on Incarceration and the Criminal Justice System.”

“What better way to bring people together than to look at those at the periphery of our society and say: What can we do together to need them?” Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, stated at the press conference.

According to a new report (with accompanying slide presentation) from the White House Council of Economic Advisors, the U.S. incarcerates prisoners at a rate of 700 per 100,000 residents, “more than four times the world average,” and employs more than two and a half times as many corrections officers. However, the U.S. employs 30% fewer police officers than the rest of the world.

Overall, the number of incarcerated is four and a half times what it was in 1980. The report’s executive summary credits this increase to “longer sentences and higher conviction rates for nearly all offenses.”

Meanwhile, the crime rate has fallen. Property crime has dropped by 52% since 1980, and violent crime has fallen by almost 40% since then. The number of arrests has declined at a slower rate, meaning more arrests per crime. The number of drug arrests has increased by more than 90% since 1980.


Impact on Communities

Incarcerations disproportionately occur in the black and Latino communities, as well as in populations that are less educated, poorer and more prone to mental illness and drug abuse.

Members of the black community are incarcerated at a rate three and a half times that of whites, and while blacks and Hispanics make up 30% of the overall population, they represent 50% of the prison population.

Over 65% of those incarcerated have not finished high school, and over half are “functionally illiterate,” Brooks said, while 50% suffer from mental illness, and 70% regularly use drugs.

And arrests aren’t the only problem. Fines are levied against anyone, regardless of income level, which means if an individual can’t pay a traffic ticket, it can eventually turn into an arrest warrant. “Though fines and fees may be initially charged for minor offenses, the burden of these payments can increase for individuals that cannot pay them on time, with late fees, processing fees, interest and even incarceration for failure to pay these debts,” the report stated.

According to one study cited in the report, in 2010 in New York City, approximately 80% of defendants could not make bail at amounts less than $500.


Enormous Cost to Society

The cost to society is enormous. The U.S. spends $260 billion per capita on incarceration and $870 billion in the criminal-justice system as a whole. The latter amount, however, belies the increasing disparity in the number of available public defenders vs. the number of cases; the average number of cases per public defender has been estimated at 350-plus per year.

“Our society pays an enormous material price for this,” Brooks said of incarceration. However, he added, “This really isn’t about money. This is about the lives that we’re throwing away.”

Waldman agreed, noting that “the magnitude of the problem has been hiding in plain sight.” He emphasized the importance of economic data, saying that “the rigor and the impact of economic analysis is matchless” in offering “measurable costs and benefits” and “consequences” of incarceration.

And there are also unseen costs of incarceration, the report noted. Children are growing up without their fathers around. Marriages fall apart with the husband in prison. Families fall into poverty without the breadwinner working. Children with a parent in prison are at higher risk for psychological disorders, struggles at school and unemployment.

And for those who do get released from prison, life doesn’t get easier. Those with a criminal record are 50% less likely to receive a call back from a prospective employer or a job offer than another applicant with a similar application, and that disparity widens among black applicants.

Unemployment is a leading cause of recidivism — 60% of parolees are back behind bars within three years of their release, Brooks noted. Only one in three inmates has “access” to job training or other educational programs in prison, leaving them “entirely unprepared for life after prison,” he added.


What Can Be Done?

What can be done to reduce America’s incarcerated population while keeping the country safe? Some claim that a tough-on-crime stance brought more criminals behind bars and was responsible for the drop in crime in the last couple of decades, but that might not necessarily be the case, the report claimed.

Yes, the crime rate goes down as the incarceration rate goes up, but there are diminishing returns for every increase in the incarceration rate. With more incarcerations, more low-level offenders are in jail.

Instead, other investments may actually pay better dividends for public safety. Several economic studies cited concluded that investments in police and in education are far more “cost-effective” than greater incarceration or stricter sentencing.

Police investment could pay off, according to one study in Oregon, which found that after mass layoffs of state troopers, the incidents of traffic deaths and injuries spiked. A stronger police presence could possibly have resulted in fewer traffic incidents.

“Offering more correctional education and job training for inmates and the formerly incarcerated can reduce barriers to re-entry and decrease recidivism,” the report’s conclusion suggested.  

And a higher graduation rate could mean fewer incarcerations in the future. One 2004 study estimated that, according to 1990 costs and benefits, “a 1% increase in the total high-school graduation rate generates a $1.4-billion benefit due to reductions in crime rates.”