The human cost of mass incarceration

President Barack Obama recently tweeted that "America is home to 5% of the world's population, but 25% of the world's prisoners."

Obama's tweet reveals the extent of U.S. mass incarceration that has damaged families, cost taxpayers billions, and disproportionately hurt minorities. To get an insight into what drove these high rates of incarceration we spoke with Mona Lynch, professor of Criminology, Law & Society at the University of California, Irvine. She has written on the topic extensively, for instance in a recent op-ed in the New York Times and in this article.

ResearchGate: Can you give a brief insight into the policy decisions that lead to the massive U.S. prison population? And what motivated these policy choices in the first place?

Mona Lynch: Mass incarceration is primarily characterized by the explosive growth in incarceration rates in the U.S since the 1980s; it is also notable for its seeming intractability and for its unequal impact on minorities and the poor. Reforms to penal codes and sentencing statutes at the state and federal levels, such as new determinate sentencing schemes and mandatory minimums, emerged in earnest in the late 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, some of the push for legislative changes began as efforts to ameliorate justice problems like racial disparities in sentence severity, but morphed into “tough on crime” laws as crime became a more politicized issue at the state and national levels.

But the story of mass incarceration is not complete by just pointing out changes in legislation. The potential of those new laws to produce mass incarceration could not be realized without dramatic transformations in local criminal justice practices, especially in law enforcement and in criminal prosecutions. Caseloads in local courts grew exponentially as arrest numbers and criminal filings increased, ultimately producing many, many more defendants eligible for prison sentences upon conviction. This was made possible in part by funding incentives, especially from the federal government.

The federal government also fueled its own version of mass incarceration, in part by directly prosecuting many, many more crimes than it ever had before, beginning in the 1980s. The federal system also has among the most draconian sentencing laws for drug crimes; consequently, sentenced federal drug defendants have annually comprised the majority of federal prisoners since 1990.

RG: What is the human and economic impact of mass incarceration?

Lynch: Imprisonment diminishes employment opportunities post-release, destabilizes families, increases rates of poverty, and can exacerbate mental health problems among the incarcerated.

More broadly, the cost of mass incarceration has meant significant trade-offs in other governmental goods and services. There are hundreds of otherwise-impoverished, so-called “million-dollar blocks” in cities across the U.S. where a million dollars or more is spent annually to lock up residents.

That kind of concentrated investment in incarceration as opposed to other services is telling about our priorities. The share of many states’ budgets devoted to corrections increased dramatically over three decades; higher education often took the budget hit to feed corrections’ growth. In this sense, the impact of mass incarceration has been on the polity writ large.

RG: Are you optimistic about Obama’s larger attempt to reform the criminal justice system?

Lynch: President Obama’s power to reform criminal justice is relatively limited, even in the federal system. The president has no real say over state and local criminal justice policy-making, and he generally can only suggest, recommend, or sign off on legislation at the federal level. His recent calls for reform are just that: calls to Congress to change the sentencing laws that have resulted in so many long prison sentences in the federal system.

There are a few ways that the president can directly act to intervene. Most notably, he has started to step up where he does hold much power; that is, in the granting of clemency to federally convicted defendants. In 2014 the executive branch launched a clemency initiative that specifically targets federally convicted nonviolent prisoners who have spent 10 years or more in prison. Just last month, the President granted clemency to 46 federal prisoners who met the criteria, all of whom had been convicted of drug crimes. The pardon office has plans to review thousands more petitions submitted by those who are eligible before the end of Obama’s term.

This, of course, can fix past excesses, but without reform to the front-end of the criminal justice process, this is more like treating the symptoms than the causes of mass incarceration.

RG: We are seeing a new left-right coalition emerging in the U.S. that wants to reform the justice system. This coalition includes Republicans like Senator Rand Paul and David and Charles Koch, the industrialist brothers. Why do you think this issue attracting bi-partisan support?

Lynch: There are huge fiscal issues at stake, so fiscal conservatives must have a hard time turning a blind eye to the skyrocketing criminal justice spending. More fundamentally, I think that for people like Senator Paul and the Koch brothers, criminal law represents a particularly awesome power that the government holds so to the extent that they hold libertarian, small-government values, the criminal justice system in the “mass incarceration” era looks awfully out of sync with those values. The critiques on the left are shaded somewhat differently, and generally harken to social justice concerns.

But it is notable that one area of left-right convergence appears to be over the deep racial and economic inequality that is central to mass incarceration. That is relatively new, I think, and it is significant. For instance, Koch Industries has provided significant financial support to fund indigent criminal defense efforts, which both fits with a concern about abuses of governmental power and fits with a concern for the poor.

Overall, it seems that the motivating forces underlying causes for reform today converge on more points than they have in the past. Hopefully, that portends a broad and durable commitment to reform, rather than a fleeting “strange bedfellows” moment.

RG: Bill Clinton admitted in a speech, referring to high incarceration rates, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Mr. Clinton said. “And I want to admit it.” What do you make of this political shift?

Lynch: The atonement shift is interesting; it occurred to some degree among those in Congress at the time of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act’s passage (which reduced the powder-crack cocaine ratio from 100-1 to 18-1). At that time, several lawmakers who had originally supported the very harsh crack laws made statements, in legislative debates and to the press, acknowledging past mistakes and essentially saying, “we are now older and wiser” on the drug issue.

Clinton’s recent admission demonstrates just how much has changed in the political arena. We have seen that crime has lost some of its salience as a political tool in recent years. As a result, crime became a bit of a non-issue in recent election cycles. Now, it looks like fixing criminal justice, rather than combatting crime, can be a strategic political position. That’s a huge change from Clinton’s time as President.

I am less sure that this shift has solidified as an enduring political ethos, at least at the federal level. When that rhetoric is followed up with actual reform by those in power to do so, I think we can start to have confidence that change is on the way.

There have been some significant reforms made in some states, but the federal system has been slower and more incremental in actually getting legislation passed. For instance, for all the change in tone, the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act has been introduced in each of the past three years but has gone no further. It would tame federal mandatory minimum drug laws, among other things, and, but it is once again languishing and unlikely to pass into law.

Moreover, even with fixes to sentencing laws, it is going to be very difficult to significantly scale back mass incarceration without on-the-ground changes in front-line criminal justice operations. That is a pretty daunting task, since we now have much larger and more entrenched institutions that will actively resist shrinking in size and stature. All signs from the national organization representing federal prosecutors indicate that they are not on board with reforms like the Smarter Sentencing Act.

RG: Can the human cost of mass incarceration be alleviated through reforms?

Lynch: Any successful decarceration effort has to take into account the lessons of other decarceration movements, including the failures when mental hospitals massively decarcerated in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is not enough to just scale back prisons; at minimum, we need commitment to comprehensive re-entry services for those released.  We also need to redirect the investment in neighborhoods like those million-dollar blocks to catalyze socio-economic vitality in places with need.

This is, of course, a huge challenge given the fundamental economic changes that have transformed labor opportunities in communities across the nation and globally. Nonetheless, there is certainly no reason to continue to over-invest in prisons until we address all the corollary challenges that are on the table. Our nation’s prison indulgence is long overdue for a strict diet.

Image courtesy of Christian Senger