The concept of incarceration, the beliefs behind its practice, the dehumanization, its exploitation, its entire practice deserves to be scrutinized the most critical light imaginable. Prisons, as we know them, present a horrifying reality. Nearly 1% of the US’ population is behind bars, and despite having only 5% of the global population, the US accounts for a quarter of the global prison population. A disproportionate amount of re-offenders are arrested on smaller drug charges. And of course, none of that is to mention the insanely disproportionate amount of people of color who make up those prison populations. There exists a fractured and corroded justice system from top to bottom. It’s no wonder that groups across the aisle are calling for reform. A reformation process wouldn’t be easy, but it’s a growing necessity. One organization wanted to make this clear in no uncertain terms, going all in just to waver their own doubt.
“(We) at Open Philanthropy asked ourselves: what if we’re wrong?,” writes researcher David Roodman, commissioned by Open Philanthropy. “It may seem strange to launch a grantmaking program even as we question its empirical basis. But Open Philanthropy had already invested significant time in studying criminal justice reform as a cause.”
In his extensive study, which looks into cases in Italy, the Netherlands and states like California and Maryland, which had sweeping changes to their juvenile offender policy around 2001, Roodman wanted to explore what effect incarceration rates and periods of imprisonment had on the overall crime.
“What if our grantees win reforms that cut the number of people behind bars, and that pushes the crime rate up?,” wrote Roodman. “How likely is that? And how likely is it that any increase would be large enough to overshadow the benefits of decarceration, which include taxpayer savings and expanded human freedom?”
The key takeaway is that “decarceration has zero net impact on crime.”
The hypothesis that prisons take crime off the street does not hold much water. Letting criminal offenders in or out does not boost crime in surrounding areas. Rather, the war on drugs has resulted in more powerful criminal organizations, more localized poverty, and more broken families. It is financially and ethically irresponsible to hold prisoners captive for extended periods of time. It is obvious that long-term prisoners or light offenders often leave in worse shape than they entered.
Roodman found that mass incarceration only prevents short-term crime, but increases it substantially in the long term. A reduction in prison populations would provide the opposite effect.
California provided Roodman his strongest illustration. In 1994 they implemented the three-strikes law, where if someone had a combined violent crime with any two other felonies, they could be locked away for life. The state found that it was not reducing the violent crime rate, and worse yet their prisons were becoming crowded with more minor offenders. They scaled back the laws by approving Proposition 36 in 2012, giving Roodman a good timeframe to work with.
“By cutting the time Californians spend in prison, the state is cutting the time they spend building relationships with other convicted offenders, even joining gangs,” found Roodman, “the time they spend trading tricks for robbing homes; the time they spend unable to integrate into the formal work economy; and the time they spend wondering why, if the system doesn’t give a damn about them, they should give a damn about it. In other words, perhaps by reducing time, realignment is reducing the criminogenic aftereffects of incarceration. If so, realignment may be raising crime in the short-term but is lowering it over the long run.”
Roodman admits it’s an optimistic conclusion that less prison would lead to less crime. Measuring the short term is always more conclusive, the future poses a lot of questions. And there is minutia that is hard to quantify, like drug and job rehabilitation prison could, hypothetically, provide, though the escalating American prison nightmare makes it hard to keep the faith. It is clear, however, that the attitude that prison prevents crime, or even deters it, is being dismantled.