The American Way of Punishment

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The U.S. has been imprisoning offenders at a rate far higher than traditional measures have shown, according to a new analytical tool developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP),

The new tool — called the “punishment rate”—reveals that states overall have become 165 percent “more punitive” between 1983 and 2013–even though crime rates have declined sharply since 1991, PSPP said today.

While the metric traditionally used by researchers, which counts the numbers of inmates sentenced to a year or more behind bars per 100,000 inhabitants (the imprisonment rate) already made clear the U.S. puts a far higher percentage of its population behind bars than other countries, the new tool demonstrates the severity of the “punishment paradigm” used by states across the country..

Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, told reporters during a telephone briefing  in advance of the release of the report that the metric highlights the extent to which policy decisions made by legislators, judges, probation officers and other officials at the local level—rather than the rate of crime–determine the cost and size of prisons.

“It’s really about how much does a jurisdiction use prison relative to what serious crime is reported,” he said.

Ratio of Prisoners to Crime

The punishment rate measures the ratio of prisoners to crime, rather than population–and tracks incarceration numbers by state according to seven serious offenses: criminal homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft.

Researchers found that, in the 30-year period between 1983-2013, all U.S. states became more punitive, although the rates varied. The highest punishment rate in the nation according to this standard was recorded in Mississippi; the country’s lowest was in Maine.

Gelb said these figures raised serious questions about the U.S. approach to crime and punishment.

“Are we maximizing public safety…or are we punishing for punishment’s sake?” he asked.

But why is the U.S. so punitive?  In a report to be released  later this week on a roundtable on at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, experts considered how the legacy of slavery, racial bias, poverty, and other factors impact punishment rates. Among other issues roundtable participants explored how incorporating a culture of forgiveness might change the approaches taken by courts and prosecutors.

According to the Pew study, Although all states rose on the punitiveness scale, they did so at varying rates. For instance, Colorado rose by 417 percent on the punitiveness scale while North Carolina increased by only 17 percent.

“The analysis again shows that some states became far more or less punitive than their imprisonment rates suggest—changes that could be the result of decreasing crime, increasing penalties, or a combination of the two,” the report states.

Imprisonment and Public  Safety

A rise in rates of punishment might be justified if imprisonment had been shown to contribute to a decrease in crime, but criminologists have found that other factors including better policing and crime prevention technology are responsible for the decrease in crime, Gelb said.

Meanwhile, policy decisions rather than crime rates are contributing to higher rates of imprisonment.

The paper suggests for example that over this period prosecutors stepped up their pursuit of felony charges–which led to more offenders being sentenced to at least a year in prison.

A large proportion of the high punishment rates was traced to the sharp increase in violent and property crime between 1983 and 1991–which led to measures such as mandatory minimum sentences and requirements for offenders to remain behind bars for most of their court-imposed sentences.

But those high levels did not fall when crime rates dropped.

“The United states has responded to declining crime with the same high level of imprisonment, leading to a significant increase in the punishment rate, particularly in recent years,” the Pew study said.

Alice Popovici is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. Readers comments are welcome.

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