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Critical mass: What can we do about incarceration rates?

The nation's prison population has reached a new equilibrium between crime and its responses to crime. The rate of incarceration per 100,000 U.S. residents increased between 1980 and 2000, but has remained relatively stable since then. In recent years, incarceration rates have gone slightly downward, and crime rates reached the lowest they have been since the 1960s (see Figure 1). If leadership doesn't address prosecution, sentencing and release policies, prison populations will not decline further, and more importantly, if crime goes up again, prison populations will rise.

Sources of prison growth

Understanding past sources of growth can provide indications on how the U.S. may reduce the rate of incarceration. Nationally, and according to an analysis conducted by Allen Beck and Al Blumstein, the principal sources of prison growth between 1980 and 2000 were in six major crime types: murder, sexual assault, robbery, assault, burglary and drug offenses (see Figure 2). About half of the total growth is attributable to an increase in the prison-commitment rate (prison admissions per 100 adult arrests), and the other half is due to increased time served. This is despite the fact that each factor's influence varied by decade, with increasing commitments accounting for more of the growth in the 1980s, and time served accounting for more of the growth in the 1990s. (1) Since 2000, there has been stability in incarceration rates, except for incarceration of drug offenders, which has declined after decades of rapid growth.

State-level analyses have uncovered additional factors, many of which are common among states. For example, the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction's (ODRC) Bureau of Research and Evaluation discovered that over the past 15 years, its female prison population increased by nearly 60 percent. Examination of the reasons for this growth found that 39 percent of female prison inmates were probation violators, which was nearly double the male rate. The rate at which females were committed to prison for drug-possession offenses was just over 19 percent, also double the rate for males. Heroin use and serious mental illness additionally affected the female prison population to a greater degree than the male prison population.

Reducing prison populations

The implications of the foregoing national data are clear: To reduce mass incarceration, decision-makers must address the key drivers of past growth--prison commitments and time served. Detailed state-level analyses provide additional critical data to inform decision-makers on the specific contributors to prison population growth locally.

Ohio's experience is one example of how this may be done. Analysis by ODRC found the top incarcerating offenses for male and female offenders were drug possession, drug trafficking, burglary and grand theft; robbery rounded out the top five offenses for male offenders, and illegal manufacturing of drugs was the fifth most common offense for female offenders. (2) This knowledge of the crimes driving prison admissions provides a central focus for rehabilitation efforts around the state.

Substance abuse and mental health constitute a second critical focus for efforts in Ohio; ODRC's Bureau of Research and Evaluation found that over 10,000 inmates in that state are on mental health caseloads. Over 30 percent of male offenders, and 61 percent of female offenders, have a history of mental health problems. Over 76 percent of Ohio offenders require substance-use treatment, with the majority of that group in severe need.

Ohio's approach to this situation involved legislative action, which sought to keep nonviolent Ohioans in their communities if they are sentenced to one year in prison or less. The legislature provided a funding stream to communities to assist in accomplishing this goal. They also created a provision to enhance judicial discretion to seal, or expunge, a person's criminal record. One of three major initiatives under the Ohio reforms is the Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison (T-CAP) program. T-CAP aims at assisting local communities to manage low-level offenders, and it currently targets about 3,400 offenders convicted of lower-level felony offenses (fifth-degree felonies). It provides supervision services, local incarceration--including community-based correctional facility placements--electronic monitoring, substance-use monitoring and treatment, and other programming and resources in lieu of imprisonment.

Overall, as the Bureau of Research and Evaluation knows, probation violators make up 23 percent of Ohio's prison inmates. To address this, the state legislature established limits on prison sanctions imposed for technical violations of community control sanctions. Depending on the type of felony involved, they have limited incarceration to either 90 days (for fifth-degree felony violators) or 180 days (for nonviolent, fourth-degree felony violators with no sexually oriented offenses). In the context of the mandatory county T-CAP initiative, these probation caps are expected to result in an estimated bed reduction of about 1,100.

The third Ohio initiative is expansion of earned time credits to reduce offender length of stay in prison. Only nonviolent offenders--including those not convicted of sex crimes--not serving mandatory prison terms are eligible for the credits, which provide for a 90-day or 10-percent reduction of sentence (whichever is less) for participation in education, drug treatment, vocational school or other specified programs.

Identifying opportunity groups is an important step in gauging what decision-makers are willing to consider in the way of policy changes, whether to decrease the rate of prison admission, or cut length of stay, or both. In Iowa and elsewhere, lower recidivism rates may be found among female offenders and people over age 55. However, any broadly defined opportunity group includes individuals who are at low and high risk to reoffend.

A good, empirically tested risk assessment may therefore serve as an important screening tool to drive sound policy changes to reduce prison populations. For example, drug offenders are a common group that, in recent years, have been targeted for policy changes in a number of states--and these policy changes have contributed to the decrease in the incarceration rate of drug offenders since the year 2000. However, incarcerated drug offenders run on the spectrum of risk from low to high likelihood to reoffend. Drug crime is one of the most common offenses among the prison population in Iowa and one that disproportionately affects African-American incarceration rates in that state. (3) In response, the Iowa legislature enacted sentencing changes for the most common drug mandatory-minimum term, which required one-third of a maximum sentence to be served prior to parole eligibility. These changes eliminated the drug mandatory-minimum term for lower-level (Class C felony) offenders and gave the sentencing judge discretion to determine the length of the drug mandatory-minimum term for higher-level drug felons based on a "validated risk assessment." The reform included a retroactive provision that reduced mandatory minimum terms for drug offenders already incarcerated; this action resulted in a few hundred drug offenders becoming immediately eligible for parole and resulted in many earlier releases for this population.

Recidivism studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people convicted of violent crimes generally have lower recidivism rates than other types of offenders. However, this is an opportunity group that decision-makers typically hesitate to touch. Nevertheless, buoyed by reports that showed robbery was the second most common reason for the incarceration of African-American offenders in their state--and was therefore a contributor to disproportionate incarceration of that population--the Iowa legislature enacted reforms to permit judges to determine the length of the mandatory-minimum term to serve for Class C felony robbery between one-half and seven-tenths of the maximum term--again after considering "a validated risk assessment" and other specified factors.

Acknowledging offender risk

The national data show that reduction in incarceration rates will not come without risk to public safety. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has found few released inmates are first-time offenders, and many have significant criminal histories. Per BJS's most recent recidivism study that tracked offenders released from prison in 30 states in 2005, approximately 12 percent of releases had two or fewer prior arrests, while 43 percent had 10 or more. This profile has not significantly changed since 1994, when BJS had previously conducted a recidivism study.

Thus far, the nation's collective recidivism rate, as measured by BJS, has shown no signs of dropping. According to data, the recidivism rate, measured as rearrest for a new offense within three years of release from prison, reached 67.5 percent in 1994 and 67.8 percent in 2005. Recidivism rates are strongly related to past failure. Those with four or fewer prior arrests have lower recidivism rates than those with 10 or more. Nevertheless, nearly 61 percent of offenders with the shortest criminal histories in the 2005 release cohort were rearrested within a longer, five-year follow-up period.

Whether efforts under the Second Chance Act--signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008--will succeed in decreasing the nation's recidivism rate remains to be seen; the 2005 release cohort in the BJS study remained mainly unaffected by the infusion of resources into reentry. Nevertheless, it is crucial to acknowledge that released offenders pose a risk to public safety, even those with the shortest criminal histories.

As demonstrated in the foregoing discussion, early (or earlier) release programs are a common method of reducing prison populations. The BJS data reveal serving 90 days longer on one's sentence doesn't have an effect on recidivism, but simply delays reoffending. When those otherwise delayed rearrests involve violent crimes--and there were more than 30 arrests for violent offenses per 1,000 released inmates in BJS's 2005 study--early-release programs risk criticism, if not derailment, should a high-profile crime occur. Nevertheless, policies that reduce prison stays may be the most important reform, since longer lengths of stay are not associated with recidivism or crime rates.

One question some jurisdictions ask: What exactly is the "risk?" Not all recidivism is of equal seriousness. By enacting its probation caps, Ohio chooses to reduce prison stays for technical violations of community control sanctions. Iowa has revamped its offender risk assessments to focus on prediction of new crimes of violence or victimization (which include property offenses). The result is to establish a priority for incarcerating offenders with a high likelihood of victimizing the public if released. This prioritization extends to provision of in-prison treatment, designed to reduce the likelihood of recidivism for higher-risk offenders.

As a final note with regard to offender risk considerations, programs and policies aimed at reducing length of stay are best implemented with a provision for increasing community corrections personnel to provide adequate supervision based on risk. Even lower-risk offenders are at increased risk of recidivism in the first six months of release. Ex-offenders have shared that reentry is a difficult undertaking for individuals as they seek to establish a stable living and work situation following a period of incarceration.

Declining prison populations, declining crime rates

Following a discussion of offender risk considerations, it seems contradictory to point out that prison populations and crime rates can decline simultaneously. However, these phenomena are not linked. Prison populations are largely driven by sentencing and corrections policies, and studies conducted by John M. Nunley, (4) Arnold Linsky, (5) Richard Rosenfeld (6) and others document that factors other than the incarceration rate have a much larger impact on the crime rate. These factors include population demographics, and age is a strong example. Whether looking at arrest rates for 1980, 2011 or any year in between, they peak around age 18 or 19 and sharply decline thereafter. Long-term interest rates, inflation, fertility rates, the size of the at-risk population and the size of family households have also been linked to crime rates.

Prison populations can be significantly reduced without increasing crime rates. Figure 3 summarizes the changes in prison populations and crime rates of four states following major criminal justice reforms enacted in years ranging between 1999 and 2008: New York, California, New Jersey and Maryland. These reforms resulted in the state prison populations declining by between 13 and 35 percent. However, the crime rates (number of arrests per 100,000 per state population) declined in all four states as well, by between 19 and 45 percent.
Figure 3: Reductions in prison populations and crime rates following
reforms in four states

                      NY        CA        NJ        MD
Reform Year           1999      2006      1999      2008

Prison Pop Before
Reform                 72,899   175,512    31,493   23,239
Current Prison Pop     51,727   129,593    20,489   20,274
Prison Reduction      -21,172   -45,919   -11,004   -2,965
% Reduction               -29%      -26%      -35%     -13%
Crime Rate Before
Reform                  3,279     3,743     3,400    4,126
Current Crime Rate      1,984     3,045     1,882    2,772
Crime Rate Reduction   -1,296      -698    -1,518   -1,354
% Reduction               -40%      -19%      -45%     -33%

Source: JFA Institute

A matter of leadership

While initiatives to reduce prison populations do involve some risk, they are a necessary component of sound criminal justice policy that seeks to make responsible use of taxpayer dollars. Prison populations do not drive crime rates, and longer prison stays do not reduce recidivism rates. The experiences of several states show that prison populations and crime rates can be reduced. Using state data to identify opportunity groups to discuss targeting for reduced imprisonment rates, shorter lengths of prison stays or both is key to developing effective strategies and engaging support from decision-makers at the local level. The use of valid risk assessment systems have the potential to moderate offender risk by assigning higher-risk inmates to appropriate treatment aimed at reducing their likelihood of reoffending. The science supports further reductions in imprisonment. Now, it's a matter of leadership from policymakers in Congress and state legislatures, prosecutors, judges and corrections officials to reassure the public that such reforms are necessary and can be implemented without jeopardizing public safety.


James Austin is a researcher and consultant on justice-system and corrections issues, as well as founder and principal of the JFA In stitute in Washington, D.C.

Gary C. Mohr is director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction and presidentelect of ACA.

Lettie Prell is the recently retired director of research at the Iowa Department of Corrections


(1) Blumstein, A., & Beck, A. J. (2012, July). Trends in U.S. incarceration rates (1980-2010). Presented to the National Research Council Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, Washington, D.C.

(2) Bureau of Research and Evaluation. (2016). Calendar year 2015 commitment report. Columbus, OH: Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

(3) Iowa Department of Corrections (2017). Iowa prison population - year end. Sioux City, IA: Iowa Department of Corrections.

(4) Nunley, J. M., Stern, M. L., Seals, R. A., & Zietz, J. (2016). The impact of inflation on property crime. Contemporary Economic Policy, 34(3), 483-499.

(5) Linsky, A., & Strauss, M. (1986). Social stress in the United States. Dover, MA: Auburn House Publishing.

(6) Rosenfeld, R. (2014). Crime and inflation in cross-national perspective. Crime and Justice, 43(1), 341-366.
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Author:Austin, James; Mohr, Gary C.; Prell, Lettie
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2018
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