The incarceration debate heated up last summer when the U.S. Supreme Court held that California would be required to significantly scale back its gravely overcrowded prison population. The decision created a furor among those who believe that releasing convicts back into society poses a risk to public safety. Yet the cost of housing millions of offenders remains an unsustainable proposition for California and other cash-strapped states. Is mass incarceration really a tradeoff between public safety and public finance? In “More Prisoners Versus More Crime is the Wrong Question,” a new policy brief for Brookings, former RSF visiting scholar Jens Ludwig and co-author Philip J. Cook propose that there are multiple options beyond prison for controlling crime.
Ludwig and Cook point out that U.S. crime rates are at a 50-year low. “The best evidence suggests the prison population would be substantially reduced with negligible effects on crime rates. Crime could actually be reduced if the savings were put to use in strengthening other criminal justice programs and implementing other reforms.” They propose that effective policies will combine measures that not only change individual propensities toward crime but also change the offending environment—such as reallocating public funds toward punishments that are “swifter, surer” but less severe and producing prevention and rehabilitation programs that focus less on traditional training and more on valuable social-cognitive skills, such as impulse control, planning, and empathy.
Read the full brief at Brookings.