As the 2016 campaign begins to take shape, prisons and criminal justice reform are emerging as a surprise issue. Last week President Barack Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma to discuss reform and Republican presidential hopefuls Rand Paul and Chris Christie have been touting the need for change.
How have prisons become a hot political topic? A combination of staggering numbers and impacts that have meaning for both parties.
The past 35 years have seen an explosion in the U.S. prison population. In 1980, there were about 316,000 people in state and federal prisons – or about 139 for every 100,000 people. In 2013, there were 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons – or about 478 for every 100,000 people.
The numbers get even more dramatic when one includes those in jails for short incarceration terms for waiting for trial. Using that measure there are 716 people incarcerated for every 100,000 people in the United States. The figure is far higher than the incarceration rates for the Western European countries that founded NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – according to figures from the International Centre for Prison Studies.
Even compared to the closest nation in that table above, the United Kingdom, the United States’ incarceration rates are about five times higher.
That spike in the prison population was driven by a lot of prison reforms since 1980 – from the three-strikes rules to the growing use of mandatory minimum sentencing – but it’s hard to ignore the role drug offenses have played.
At the state levels, the federal level, and in local jails, the number of people in prison on drug offenses has grown by more than 10 times, from about 41,000 in 1980 to roughly 490,000 in 2013.
And the impacts of prison population growth have fallen unevenly, with the biggest effects on minority groups, particularly African Americans. The African American rate, 2,290 per 100,000, is more than five times the rate for white Americans, 412 per 100,000; the number for Hispanics is also higher, 742 per 100,000.
That’s a lot of people impacted by the prison population boom and remember these population figures do not include all the lives touched, including friends and family of those in prison and well as roughly 900,000 parolees waling the streets.
On the other side of the issue equation you have dollars spent. You don’t get all those people in prison without a very big price tag. State corrections expenditures alone in 2013 were estimated to be roughly $52 billion, according to the Sentencing Project.
Add all those numbers together, sprinkle in the tight budget situations at the state and federal level, and you have an interesting campaign topic for 2016.
For Democrats, the issues of racial inequality and aggressive drug laws resonate. For Republicans, there is the question of cost and, to some extent, effectiveness.
The prison population began its current jump in the 1980s, but violent crime in the United States really didn’t begin falling until the mid-1990s. The reasons for that drop are still very much up for debate and range from the aging Baby Boomer population to improved methods of policing.
Did the increases in incarceration play a role? Mostly likely some, says the National Research Council, but “the results of most studies suggest it was unlikely to have been large.” And the negative effects of prison time on ex-inmates is strong, the Council says, with post-prison lives marked by “violence, joblessness, substance abuse” and other problems.
High incarceration rates, high costs and, at best, limited positive impacts – all reasons why prison reform may be the sleeper issue of the 2016 campaign.