Why the U.S. Should Cut Prisons Drastically


A “robust national conversation” is needed to discuss ways of cutting the U.S. incarceration rate in half by 2030, Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said today. Speaking to a national meeting of criminal justice agency leaders in Atlanta, Travis urged a discussion of how “long-standing American values” can guide new policies of significantly shorter prison sentences.

“This is the role of a values discussion,” Travis said. “This is the high ground on which right and left, conservative and progressive, libertarian and activist can meet.”
Travis spoke to the annual National Forum on Criminal Justice, co-sponsored by the National Criminal Justice Association, Justice Research and Statistics Association, and the IJIS Institute. The three-day session ends Wednesday.
The forum invited Travis to speak in his role as chairman of a panel of the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC), which last year issued a lengthy report on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration in the United States.
That report concluded that the 40-year growth in U.S. incarceration rates “is historically unprecedented and internationally unique.” With about 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, the U.S. incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s prison population, while it is home to 5 percent of the total world population.
The nation’s prison population is not strictly related to crime rates, Travis said. Instead, “We are here because we chose to be here. We have arrived at the reality of mass incarceration through a series of policy choices.” During the same period that incarceration totals have risen more or less steadily, crime rates have done up and down.
There have been three main drivers of high imprisonment rates, the NRC panel said: sentencing enhancements like “three strikes and you’re out,” mandatory minimum sentences, on a war on drugs that imposed long prison terms for offenses that otherwise would have been handled via drug treatment.
The NRC experts contended that the appropriate rate of incarceration should not be decided on a “highly unsatisfying” basis of whether the benefits of incarceration outweigh the costs, Travis said, but rather based on four principles:
  • Proportionality, the idea that “offenders should be held accountable for their crimes in strict proportion to the seriousness of their crimes.”
  • Parsimony, the notion that people should be sent to prison only to “achieve a legitimate social purpose.” Travis noted that the necessity of maintaining “nursing homes behind bars” for geriatric prisoners shows that this principle isn’t being followed in the U.S.
  • Citizenship. Travis praised policies in Germany, where he took part in a recent group that visited prisons. That country tries “to create environments in prison that resemble as closely as possible the environment in free society,” Travis said.
  • Social Justice. Asking whether the use of prison in the u.S. as a response to crime “exacerbates racial, economic, or other inequities in our society,” Travis said, “measured against this yardstick, our current level of incarceration fails miserably.”
Travis admitted that the challenge of cutting incarceration drastically is “very difficult work.”
Alluding to some current discussions of policy changes, he said, “We can easily get lost in the hand-to-hand combat of cutting a bit here, snipping a bit there, tinkering with mandatory minimums, recalculating good time and changing dates of parole eligibility.”
Such discussions “will never lead to the significant reduction in our prison population that is possible and desirable,” Travis said.
In response to a question, Travis said that if states reduce spending on prisons, they should respond to crime victims much more effectively. “A lot more money should be spent on repairing the harm,” he said.
He urged instead a “return to basics,” answering questions like “How best should we respond to crime? How best can we respect and support the human dignity of victims of ,
How can we express the appropriate societal condemnation of violations of our laws without ruining the lives of those who engaged in those violations? How can we achieve a new
understanding, common across all political views, that the state must be constrained lest we lose our liberties? How can we use prisons sparingly, accelerating the successful and swift
return to society of those who must spend some time in our prisons?
“How can we agree that the boundaries between prison and free society need not be characterizes solely by razor wire but can be crossed by furlough programs, work release, halfway houses, conjugal visits, and yes even phones in the cells?”
Travis concluded, “We need to reimagine our prisons. We need to invest in our prisons. We need to downsize our prisons. We need to humanize our prisons. We need to create new relationships between those who work in our prisons and those who are held in our prisons.”

Comments are closed.