U.S. Imprisonment Rate Grows; Do We Use Prisons Because They Are There?


Why do we lock up so many people, disrupting so many families and so many communities, to achieve the same crime results we did nearly a half-century ago? John Roman of the Urban Institute, writing in the Washington Post, asks that question. He says a higher percentage of people arrested for felonies are eventually convicted today than back then, probably more than ever before. In 1991, about 1 out of 16 people arrested for a felony eligible for a year in prison served that amount of time or more. Today, that number is closer to 1 in 4. Most scholars argue that it is the certainty of arrest that deters violence. When a potential offender contemplates a crime, the only calculus that seems to matter is: Will I get caught?

Roman believes we should ask whether increasing the number of people who are incarcerated after an arrest will change that criminal calculus. The answer is plainly no, he says. The clearance rate today, about 24 percent, is more or less identical to 1970, meaning that criminals today are no more certain of getting arrested than criminals were in 1970. However, they are more certain of going to prison once arrested. So there is no more deterrence, just more punishment. Why are more people in prison? Roman says there were about 250,000 prison beds in the early 1980s, and today there are more than 800,000. As long as there prison cells to be filled, they will be. His conclusion: The U.S. “has simply created a tremendous capacity to convict and incarcerate its citizens. And, we continue to do so even though violence has declined dramatically.”

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