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What's Behind Falling Incarceration Rates?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, we'll talk about elections set for Zimbabwe, where 89-year-old President Robert Mugabe is hoping to win yet another term despite - or maybe because of - what many people call an increasingly abusive dictatorial style of government. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes. But first, we want to talk about an issue that's become a central focus of activists in this country - it's the incarceration rate.

It might surprise you to know that the U.S. leads the world in the number of people locked up in jails or prisons and the rate of incarceration, that according to the International Center for Prison Studies. More than 1.5 million Americans were in state and federal prisons last year, according to the latest numbers from the Department of Justice. But that number was actually down from the year before, and in fact, it's the third straight year the number of prisoners in the U.S. has declined.

We were wondering what's behind the trend and what it might mean for other important issues that have eluded political consensus. So we've called on two people from different sides of the political spectrum who've been watching this issue closely. Vikrant Reddy is a policy analyst for Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation Center for Effective Justice, that's a conservative think tank. Nicole Porter is the Director of Advocacy for The Sentencing Project. That's a group that's been working to lower the incarceration rate for some time now. Thank you both so much for joining us.

NICOLE PORTER: Thank you for having me.

VIKRANT REDDY: Thank you. It's nice to be on.

MARTIN: Nicole Porter, if I could start with you. How did the U.S. get to be the world leader in incarceration, and why has a group like yours, among others, been so aggressively trying to change that trend?

PORTER: Well, the U.S. got to be the leader in the world's incarceration rate because of very harsh sentencing policies, such as mandatory minimum penalties, treat the (unintelligible) penalties and Three Strikes and You're Out laws, like what's famous in California and other states that have habitual offender laws as well. So our penalties trigger very long prison sentences in this country and that has changed dramatically over the last 30 to 40 years and has led the U.S. to have the highest rate of incarceration.

MARTIN: Why now is this trend reversing?

PORTER: We've been documenting changes in policy and practice for about 10 years and would say that the trend started about 12 years ago. We're only now starting to realize the decline in the prison population and in the rate of incarceration because people are sentenced to very long penalties, so the changes in policy and practice have taken a while to actually be seen in state prison population.

MARTIN: Vikrant Reddy, what's your perspective on this? Why do you think that this trend is now reversing after such a long move in the other direction?

REDDY: One of the primary reasons that incarceration is dropping is simply that crime is dropping. So when you have less crime, you will possibly, not definitely, you'll have less people locked up. Now, I say possibly because it's also possible that we sweep too many people up and we ignore the fact that crime is dropping. But luckily, that's not happening, what's happened is that this has sort of changed the political environment.

So where as this used to be a really contentious issue in things like, oh, the Willie Horton ad, and the Bernie Goetz incident, and all of these famous criminal law stories from the last 20 years just dominated headlines - they don't anymore. And so people can talk more about improving parole and probation and drug courts and other alternatives.

MARTIN: We spoke with somebody at The Heritage Foundation, which is a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. - and they said that incarceration rates are dropping in part because so many people have been locked up in the past that that's kind of removed, if we can use this term, kind of a criminal cohort from the streets. That has helped lower crime rates, which has then created the space that you've talked about - to actually start seeing the trend that we are seeing now. Vikrant, do you agree with that?

REDDY: There's something to that. It's obvious that if you lock more people up you're going to have less crime, just because you've incapacitated people. But of course, the problem is that at a certain point you're going to get diminishing returns. You can just start locking up far too many people and you'd find that those dollars could be more wisely spent elsewhere - maybe in programs that would reduce recidivism rates and things like that.

So I think that's correct up to a point, but we've probably passed that point and we're really at a stage now where we need to reduce this heavy incarceration - heavy and expensive incarceration burden. And, happily, it looks like that's happening.

MARTIN: Talk - Vikrant - Nicole, I haven't forgotten about you, but Vikrant could you talk a little bit more about why you and your group believes that the point of diminishing returns has now been reached, because people have associated, I think, the conservative side with these tougher sentencing policies. That's not always strictly true, for example, in New York - has had a very high incarceration rate, very tough drug laws in the past, which has been considered a more, you know, liberal state, for example.

Even liberal leaders there, like former governor Mario Cuomo, endorsed very tough sentencing policies in part as an alternative to the death penalty, so that's not a strict, you know, correlation. But why do you think and why do you feel that other conservators, like the ones in your group, Right on Crime, now believe we've reached the point of diminishing returns?

REDDY: It's research driven. You know, you talk about New York, and New York's got its problems, but in a lot of ways New York is really kind of a great role model for other states. You look at some of the microdata over this period when incarceration has increased across the United States and there are periods where in New York, I think from 2000 to 2010, incarceration actually was reduced.

Now, on top of that, their crime rate fell. So when you look at other states where incarceration increased and the crime rate fell, and you try to say, well, there's an obvious correlation here - you're able to turn to a state like New York and say, no, no, New York did different things in terms of policing and other strategies. And it's not necessarily the case that increasing incarceration is leading to decreases in the crime rate.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Vikrant Reddy of Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Nicole Porter from The Sentencing Project. We're talking about this country's declining incarceration rate. Nicole, your group has long thought that we've reached the point of diminishing returns with the rate of incarceration - with the number of people that we incarcerate in this country.

So we understand that that's your perspective. Why do you think that the trend is going the other way? Is it there's a philosophical consensus around this, or is it just the budget? Is it, we know that many states, and certainly the federal government, are under a lot of financial stress and that localities just can't afford this anymore?

PORTER: Sure, well, it's certainly a mix of things. But we would say at The Sentencing Project that it's a little bit too simplistic to just focus on the recent recessionary period and the budget as what's been the trigger for policymakers and stakeholders to shift their opinion on the incarceration rate.

Actually, this work has been achieved over a long period of time, in terms of working to shift public opinion. And certainly, states have been looking at revisiting the laws that trigger long prison sentences for about 12 years now, since the late '90s.

MARTIN: What is the most persuasive evidence, in your view, that has led to this change in perspective?

PORTER: Well, we've been documenting at The Sentencing Project since 2004 that lawmakers are revisiting policy and practice in terms of what sends people to prison and their length of confinement. Why we are seeing declines in the prison population over the last three years is because the prison sentences are very lengthy, and it's taken time to realize how those changes in practice have impacted state prison populations.

MARTIN: For people who are not familiar with this area of policy, what is the - what is the most persuasive thing you can say to people that say, we lock up too many people for too little reason for too long of a length of time?

PORTER: Well, for a long period of time, prison populations continued to rise, and policymakers realized that the budgets were also increasing, as well. And that wasn't impacting public safety in an effective and efficient way and there were more effective alternatives, such as community-based alternatives, that also realized lower rates of recidivism.

MARTIN: So, Vikrant, what about you? In the couple of minutes that we have left, I mean, we are in a particularly polarized political environment now. Is there something that you could point to, in this area, that might foretell something else, some other areas in which you think that there could be some advancement or agreement on something that's as important as this?

REDDY: In areas outside of...

MARTIN: Is there some lesson that you think that can be learned from what's happening in criminal justice, either philosophically or in a way that you - people can approach an issue?

REDDY: The lesson really is the importance of looking at the data and making sure that you focus on what the research is showing you, as opposed to maybe preconceived, ideological notions. I'm talking to you from Texas, it's my home state. It's also Nicole's home state, and we've managed to shut down a prison in our legislative session two years ago.

We authorized two more prison closures just this past legislative session. The number of people incarcerated in Texas is dropping and Texas has the lowest crime rate it's had since 1968. It's one thing when Vermont does it, but when Texas does something like this - the ultimate, sort of tough-on-crime state in people's minds - I think it really speaks to them. It shows them that you can get real successes doing this stuff.

MARTIN: What would you say to people who just don't believe it? I mean, they believe that just locking up people is the way to address crime, even for offenses that, you know, some people consider to be - I mean, it used to be said that drug crimes, for example, people thought those were victimless crimes and other people made the case that they actually aren't, that there were all kinds of social ramifications that, you know, need to be addressed through incarceration. What would you say to people, Vikrant, who are skeptical of this?

REDDY: I think we should draw a reasonable line between violent and nonviolent crimes. I mean, violent people need to be locked up. There is this old saw in our field that I know Nicole probably knows, where people say, we need to focus on locking up the people we're scared of, not the people we're mad at.

Now, the people we're mad at, you know, I don't think we should just let those offenses go. I think that they need to be punished, too, but I don't think that incarceration is really the best way to do it very often. Things like drug courts and effective parole and probation, these things would go a lot further than incarceration would in improving those social problems.

MARTIN: Nicole Porter, what about you?

PORTER: You know, the United States sentencing practices are far out of step of similar situated countries. And the reason why we do have such a high rate of incarceration is because, even for violent offenses, our penalty structure is very harsh.

So in order for us to look at the incarceration rate and if we're troubled by it, as The Sentencing Project is and as many people are, that's why we're seeing these changes in policy and practice. Not only do we have to address nonviolent offenses, but we also have to address how we address violent people sentenced to violent offenses, as well.

MARTIN: What about people who say, so what? So what if the U.S. is the leader in the incarceration rate? What about people who say, so what?

PORTER: I would just say, well, how should we be using resources effectively, and are there other ways to reduce criminal offending that don't just rely on incarceration? Because we've seen that even in states that have reduced their rate of incarceration, crime has continued to go down. So it's not just about the correlation between the rate of incarceration and crime that's improving or maintains public safety, it's about other social interventions, as well.

And are there other solutions to social policy problems, such as investing in early childhood education, investing in job training programs, particularly for high incarceration communities? And I would hope that people who are suspicious of incarceration or who aren't troubled by it would also think that there are other more effective ways to use taxpayer dollars and to use resources towards improving public safety.

MARTIN: Nicole Porter is the director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. Studios. Vikrant Reddy is a policy analyst for Right on Crime and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Center for Effective Justice. He was with us from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

PORTER: Thank you.

REDDY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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