Reducing Incarcerating Numbers: Unintended Consequences

No Cost Saving Here

Just weeks after his election in 2010 the Wall Street Journal reported that Georgia Republican Governor Nathan Deal was on a drive to replace the tough on crime minimum sentencing. Prison populations had been steadily rising for decades. The current motivation is to reduce the steeply increasing prison costs in the face of budget pressures.


August 2013 US News covered Attorney General Eric Holder’s recommendations for reducing mandatory drug sentences. Based on the reality that 30 years of tough sentencing had had little impact on illegal drug sale and use in the US, the expensive incarceration has been unsuccessful.


Here the budget hawks and the reality of the failed War on Drugs have intersected. Using one voice there is a nation-wide movement to decrease the number of days and people in jails. In 2011 more than 700,000 people were released from Federal prison and 9 million from local jails. This sounds like a win-win scenario. However, as is often the case there are foreseeable unintended consequences.

The US incarcerates far more of our population thatn any other country in the world (716 people per 100,000 population) far more of our population than any other country in the world. (Cuba imprisons 510 per 100,000 population, Russia 484. and Iran at 284) Few democracies of any size incarcerate even half as many. Growth in state prison inmates is slowing while federal numbers grow.


In the US there are two liming issues that will result from decreasing the prison population: the first is that most jails and prisons do little to aid inmates with reentry to society from correctional facilities. With increased numbers of inmates are released the known reentry problems will increases. If resources are not found to aid in these issues, known problems will increase (substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, infectious diseases, reintroduction to families and relationships). The issue is the reality that mentally ill citizens represent a disproportionally high number of incarcerated individuals. Bassically they have been warehoused in jail rather that treated through a functioning mental health system. The cracks in our mental health services system will be exacerbated by these early releases.


While no one is suggesting that people be kept in prison because the lack of support on reentry, this reentry will further strain support systems. The idea that there will be great financial savings from these actions ignores reality. If these support systems had been in place, many of our incarsorated would not be there now. In my next blog I’ll look at the research on these two unintended outcomes.



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