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Serving People from Arrest to Reintegration

Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America's Prison Population (JFA Institute)

  • Organization: JFA Institute
  • Document Type: Report
  • Date Created: Monday, November 26, 2007
  • Submitted: Monday, November 26, 2007
  • Attachment(s): PDF

This report focuses on how we can reduce the nation's prison population without adversely affecting public safety. For this to happen, we will need to reduce the number of people sent to prison and, for those who do go to prison, shorten the length of time they spend behind bars and under parole and probation surveillance. People who break the law must be held accountable, but many of those currently incarcerated should receive alternative forms of punishment, and those who are sent to prison must spend a shorter period incarcerated before coming home to our communities. Our recommendations would reestablish practices that were the norm in America for most of the previous century, when incarceration rates were a fraction of what they are today.

We first summarize the current problem, explaining how some of the most popular assumptions about crime and punishment are incorrect. In particular, we demonstrate that incarcerating large numbers of people has little impact on crime, and show how the improper use of probation and parole increases incarceration rates while doing little to control crime. We then turn to ideas about how to change this fl awed system. We set out an organizing principle for analyzing sentencing reform, embracing a retributive sentencing philosophy that is mainstream among contemporary prison policy analysts and sentencing scholars.

Based on that analysis, we make a series of recommendations for changing current sentencing laws and correctional policies. Each recommendation is practical and cost-effective. As we show through examples of cases in which they have been tried, they can be adopted without jeopardizing public safety. If implemented on a national basis, our recommendations would gradually and safely reduce the nation's prison and jail populations to half their current size. This reduction would generate savings of an estimated $20 billion a year that could then be reinvested in far more promising crime prevention strategies. The result would be a system of justice and punishment that is far less costly, more effective, and more humane than what we have today.

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