Will Budget Pressures Force The End of U.S. Mass Incarceration Growth?


The Corrections Corporation of America, seeking state investments in private prisons, wants 20- to 30-year contracts for housing criminals. The company wants states to guarantee a 90 percent occupancy rate, calibrating the wheels of justice to fit a profit-margin spreadsheet, says the American Bar Association Journal. That near-no-vacancy sign might prove difficult to lock in. In each of the past three years, overall population in state prisons has declined a bit—dropping for the first time since 1972, when tough-on-crime policies gained traction.

Some states are closing prisons, while others have decided not to build facilities already planned. More states are seeking alternatives to what had become lock 'em up and throw open the wallet. “Back in the 1980s, we couldn't talk about criminal justice without mentioning the broken-windows theory, and now that's happening with mass incarceration,” says Todd Clear, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. “It's not just the research and findings, but the fact that the discussion is happening. Something fundamental has changed.” Where two or more decades of ethical, moral and evidence-based reasoning failed, pinched purses of the public fisc are driving change. The states spend more than $50 billion a year on corrections, says the Pew Center on the States. Now they're being forced to get smart on crime. Clear is more hopeful than some colleagues, saying, “History will show that the mass incarceration era has ended.”

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