[JURIST] The US prison population is currently eight times as high as it was in 1970, but zealous prosecution and tough sentencing guidelines have done little to curb crime, according to a report [PDF text] released Monday by the JFA Institute [advocacy website], a Washington criminal justice research group. The report said:
Proponents of prison expansion have heralded this growth as a smashing success. But a large number of studies contradict that claim. Most scientific evidence suggests that there is little if any relationship between fluctuations in crime rates and incarceration rates. In many cases, crime rates have risen or declined independent of imprisonment rates. New York City, for example, has produced one of the nation’s largest declines in crime in the nation while significantly reducing its jail and prison populations. Connecticut, New Jersey, Ohio, and Massachusetts have also reduced their prison populations during the same time that crime rates were declining.
The report called for a major retooling of the US criminal justice system and recommended implementing new policies to reduce the prison population, including shorter sentences and the decriminalization of certain recreational drugs, arguing that these measures would "save $20 billion a year and ease social inequality without endangering the public." According to Reuters, a US Justice Department [official website] spokesman disputed the report's findings and argued that tough-on-crime tactics were responsible for a 25 percent drop in violent crime in the 1990s. Reuters has more.
Rising numbers of inmates in US prisons has been a concern for years. The US prison and jail population added prisoners [press release; JURIST report] from mid-2004 to mid-2005 at a rate of 2.6 percent and more than 1,000 new inmates a week, reaching a total of 2,186,230 inmates behind bars according to a Justice Department Bureau of Justice Statistics [official website] report [summary; PDF text] released last year. The racial makeup of the prison population remained steady, but the number of women incarcerated in the US for a period of over a year saw a large upswing, growing 757 percent between 1997 and 2004 [JURIST report], according to a report [text] released by the Women’s Prison Association [advocacy website].