The United States incarcerates too many people, a new National Research Council report concludes.
Adding more evidence to a growing debate, the elite scientific panel noted with alarm that "the U.S. penal population of 2.2 million adults is by far the largest in the world." Nearly one out of every 100 U.S. adults is in prison or jail, a rate five to 10 times higher than that in Western Europe and other democracies.
"We are concerned that the United States is past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by social benefits," said committee chair Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "We need to embark on a national conversation to rethink the role of prison in society."
The study panel attributed the "historically unprecedented" and "internationally unique" growth in prison population to mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeat offenses and the once politically popular "war on drugs."
The burden does not fall evenly, the 400-plus page report notes.
Of those incarcerated in 2011, about 60 percent were African-American or Hispanic. African-American males under the age of 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than employed in the labor market, the study found. In 2010, the imprisonment rate for African-Americans was 4.6 times that for whites.
The benefits, moreover, may be questionable.
"The increase in incarceration may have caused a decrease in crime," the report concludes, "but the magnitude is highly uncertain, and most studies suggest it was unlikely to have been large."