The U.S. prison and jail population could be cut dramatically without increasing the crime rate, a group of nine criminologists argues in a new report. The criminologists, led by James Austin of Washington, D.C., say in “Unlocking America” that tens of billions of tax dollars would be saved if prison terms were made proportional to the severity of the crimes involved. The lengthening of prison terms overall in recent decades has had no major impact on recidivism rates or crime rates in general, the criminologists maintain.
The report contests the idea that filling the nation’s jails and prisons with more than 2 million inmates has cut crime. It notes that New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts, have reduced prison populations at the same time that crime rates were falling. The criminologists contend that the imprisonment boom has had “numerous unintended consequences, ranging from racial injustice and damage to families and children to worsening public health, civic disengagement, and even increases in crime.” They maintain that the prison population could be trimmed safely to under 700,000. Other report authors were Todd Clear and Candace McCoy of John Jay College, Troy Duster and David Greenberg of New York University, John Irwin of San Francisco State University, Alan Mobley of San Diego State University, Barbara Owen of California State University-Fresno, and Joshua Page of the University of Minnesota.