Social Scientists Call for Reducing Prison Rolls; Levitt Backs 1/3 Cut


Tough sentencing that has produced a total of 2.3 million prisoners in the U.S. “appears increasingly dubious to both conservative and liberal social scientists,” says the New York Times, citing evidence that mass incarceration is no longer a cost-effective way to make streets safer, and may even be promoting crime instead of suppressing it. The Times says criticism of high incarceration rates is “attracting attention partly because the drop in crime has made it a less potent political issue, and partly because of the states' financial problems.”

The Times cites the conservative group Right on Crime, which advocates more selective incarceration and warns that current policies “have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders” so that they become “a greater risk to the public than when they entered.” Another expert, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, said, “My guess is that the costs outweigh the benefits at the margins. I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.” The number of drug sellers in prison has risen from fewer than 50,000 in 1980 to more than 500,000 today, but that still leaves more than two million people on the street who sell drugs at least occasionally.

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