The verdict is in, and it’s close to unanimous: The United States has built too many prisons.
After nearly 40 years of uninterrupted prison growth that put one in 100 adults behind bars, a wave of state reforms over the past several years has reduced the incarceration rate while the crime rate has continued to fall. These tandem trends have convinced many Americans that locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods of time is neither the best nor only way to protect public safety.
Governors and legislatures in red and blue states alike have enacted substantial policy shifts, often by wide bipartisan majorities. Voters, in opinion surveys and at the ballot box, appear to be solidly behind putting the brakes on prison construction and steering lower-level offenders to alternatives.
Shifting national attitudes about crime and punishment have led to calls for even more aggressive reforms to criminal penalties and deep reductions in the inmate population. Elected officials and opinion leaders from opposite ends of the political spectrum have begun a dialogue about what it would mean — and take — to cut the current prison population in half, a once far-fetched fantasy that several new advocacy groups have adopted as their outright objective.
Tracking the number of inmates is essential but not enough to know whether we are making progress toward a more effective criminal justice system. A fuller picture requires a new and more nuanced measure — one that goes beyond the tally and captures the type of inmates behind bars.
Recent state reforms have sought to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs. To achieve these goals, many states are focusing their expensive prison beds on violent and career criminals with new policies that divert lower-level offenders into non-prison sanctions or reduce the time they spend locked up, restrict revocations of parole and probation for minor rules violations, and expand eligibility and funding for drug courts and other alternatives.
Yet most states cannot readily determine whether the new policies are working any better than those they replace. Beyond a simple count of prisoners, the typical state data report offers basic demographic information and breaks down how many inmates are serving time for violent, property, drug and other crimes.
These numbers are helpful, but by themselves they reveal only fragments of the information necessary to paint a meaningful portrait of inmate populations. For instance, an offender currently serving time for a relatively minor crime may have a string of prior violent convictions that make him a higher risk to society than someone in prison for a more serious offense not likely to be repeated.
A more holistic look at prison use would blend current offense, prior record and risk of recidivism. By joining some combination of these elements into a single measure — a prison composition index — policymakers and the public could develop a better understanding of how their prison beds are being used and whether their reforms are succeeding.
As a starting point for constructing such an index, states could use current definitions in policy or statute. For current offense, it might be appropriate to use offenses deemed violent crimes for purposes of parole eligibility. Criminal history measures could be based on a certain number of prior state prison incarcerations. For risk level, states could use an existing assessment tool to identify inmates with a high likelihood of recidivism or the percentage of inmates classified for maximum security facilities. And states with sentencing guidelines that already base recommendations on a combination of current offense and prior record might simply count the inmates for whom prison is the preferred sentencing option.
The end goal is to come up with a single measure tracked over time that answers the question: What percentage of the prison population consists of violent and chronic offenders who pose a threat to public safety, and how many are offenders who could safely pay their debt to society in less expensive and more effective ways?
Pennsylvania is probably the first state to attempt to use a sophisticated prison composition index. Under the direction of Secretary John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections uses an “Offender Violence Risk Typology” tool, which merges information about current offense, prior record and risk level to create three categories of inmates. According to the index, 69 percent of Pennsylvania’s prison admissions and 59 percent of the standing population in 2013 fell into the least serious of the three categories, figures that have changed little since 2010.
The raw number of prisoners is an important barometer of our criminal justice system. But we also need to know who the inmates are, why they’re there, and whether society will be better off if they are incarcerated or sentenced in other ways.
• Adam Gelb and Craig Prins are director and research director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project.