The growth of America’s prison and jail populations over the last 35 years creates an array of new challenges for public policy and provokes a variety of questions about the quality of American democracy and citizenship. In the early 1970s, the US rate of imprisonment was around 100 per 100,000 people. Today, the imprisonment rate is five times higher, the prison and jail population totals 2.25 million, and over 7 million people are now under some kind of criminal justice supervision once parole and probation populations are counted. The US incarceration rate is the highest in the world, far exceeding incarceration rates of the longstanding democracies of Western Europe and the historically repressive societies of South Africa and the former Soviet republics.
The overall rate of incarceration is perhaps less important than its distribution across the population. About 15 percent of men born since the late 1970s will go to prison at some in point in their lives if they never go to college. Among young non-college African American men, 35 percent have prison records. Among young black men who have dropped out of high school, 70 percent have been to prison. For recent birth cohorts of African American men, going to prison has become more common than graduating college with a four-year degree.
The growth in US prison and jail populations was driven by a punitive turn in criminal justice policy. In getting “tough on crime,” policymakers from across the political spectrum turned incarceration into the presumptive criminal punishment. This punitive criminal justice policy largely abandoned the rehabilitative mission of corrections, aiming instead for public safety through incapacitation and deterrence.
After three decades of punitive policy, there are signs of openness in the politics of crime and justice. The Prison Studies Project aims to contribute to a new conversation about public safety and criminal punishment. In part our contribution is based on research that examines the scope and consequences of incarceration as well as policy alternatives to incarceration.
The research focuses on how incarceration affects the social and economic lives of people returning home from prison and considers the families of those caught up in the criminal justice system. The key policy proposal is the creation of a national employment-based reentry policy involving expanded support, transitional housing and substance-abuse treatment.