Much of the debate surrounding mass incarceration is centered on its statistics: The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners; American prisons hold more inmates than Soviet gulags at their peak; a greater proportion of black Americans are imprisoned than black South Africans under apartheid. Now there’s a new figure worth remembering: 39 percent.
That’s the percentage of people in U.S. prisons who are “unnecessarily incarcerated,” a new Brennan Center study claimed last week. The report, which took three years to complete, studied criminal codes, criminal-justice research, and prison populations throughout the country to determine how many prisoners are incarcerated without a justifiable public-safety rationale. It concludes that 576,000 inmates currently locked up for crimes ranging from mail fraud to simple burglary could be swiftly released without endangering their fellow Americans.
Many of those Americans view incarceration as a largely punitive tool. But the report instead focuses on whether or not prison sentences reduce crime or enhance public safety. To that end, it outlines a series of alternatives that state legislatures and Congress could adopt, ranging from electronic monitoring to community service. The report also recommends redirecting the estimated $18.1 billion in annual savings from reduced prison costs into reentry programs and community policing, although it doesn’t otherwise focus on the impact of releasing half a million prisoners back into society.