After Two Extremes, Is U.S. “Nearing Happy Medium” On Prisoner Numbers?


The new report on U.S. incarceration by the National Research Council “downplays recent progress in favor of a scarier but outdated narrative,” says Washington Post editorial writer Charles Lane. Lane says the report implies that we can have safe streets without the cost, financial and moral, of locking up so many criminals, because it is unlikely that increased incarceration had a “large” positive impact on crime rates. “It would be nice if there were no trade-off between crime and punishment, but common sense says it's not so,” Lane says.

An analysis by the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project, similar in tone to the NRC report, acknowledges that increasing incarceration can reduce crime and that this effect is greatest when the overall rate of incarceration is low. That means, in Lane’s view, that “increasing the incarceration rate now would do little to reduce crime, but the crime-fighting benefits were probably substantial back in the high-crime, low-incarceration days when tougher sentencing was initially imposed.” Lane believes the current drop in prisoner totals “may represent the delayed effect of falling crime and the diminished flow of new offenders it necessarily entails.” His conclusion: “After erring on the side of leniency in the 1960s, then swinging the opposite way in the 1980s and 1990s, the United States may be nearing a happy medium.”

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