Nearly 40 percent of the roughly 1.5 million state and federal prisoners in the U.S. are behind bars “with little public safety rationale,” the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University said today.
In an analysis of the national prison population, the center contended that about 576,000 inmates either could do better in settings outside prison walls or have served more time than is warranted by their offense. The center said such a reduction could occur without a risk to public safety.
After rising sharply over several decades, the national prison population has declined slightly in the past few years. The Brennan Center argued that the rate of decline is so slow that if it continued at that pace it would take 75 years to return the national total to its level of the early 1970s.
The center said its analysis took into account the seriousness of the crime committed; the impact on victims, especially physical harm; whether the offender knowingly and deliberately violated the law, and the odds that a prisoners would reoffend if released.
Today’s report included only those serving state or federal prison terms. The center promised a report in the future on the hundreds of thousands of people in local jails.
One way to accomplish the goal is to make non-prison sentences for minor crimes like drug possession, lesser burglary, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud or forgery, minor theft, and simple assault. These offenses account for one-fourth of the current prison population.
The center also called for states and federal officials to reduce by 25 percent sentences for the six major crimes that make up most of the prison population: aggravated assault, murder, nonviolent weapons offenses, robbery, serious burglary, and serious drug trafficking.
As an example, the average inmate convicted of robbery now serves 4.2 years. A 25 percent cut would reduce the time to 3.1 years.
Most states that already have cut their prison populations have not seen increases in crime, the center says. Its report concludes that doing the same thing on a national scale would not result in major increases in the crime rate. (Several cities have reported increases in homicides and other violent crimes in recent years, but these are generally not attributed to released prisoners.)
Although higher sentences for many crimes, including mandatory minimum sentences, explains some of the big national increase in prisoners, another factor is that many inmates simply spent more time behind bars than they formerly did because of stricter policies on release, the new report says.
Between 1993 and 2009, the average prison stay for state inmates increased by 33 percent. The increase was most dramatic for violent and public order crimes, but prison stays also increased 18 percent for property crimes and 25 percent for drug crimes. The average stay for federal prisoners more than doubled from 1988 to 2012, rising from 1.5 to 3.1 years.
The full report, “How Many Americans Are Unneccessarily Incarcerated?,” by Lauren-Brooke “L.B.” Eisen, James Austin, James Cullen, Jonathan Frank, and Inimai M. Chettiar, is available here.
This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report.