75 Fed. Probation 2 (2011)
Beyond the Prison Bubble

handle is hein.journals/fedpro75 and id is 2 raw text is: Beond the Pr ison Bubble'
Joan Petersilia
Co-Director, Stanford Criminal Justice Center

THE ANNOUNCEMENT last summer that
in 2009 the number of Americans behind bars
had increased for the 37th year in a row pro-
voked a fresh round of national soul-search-
ing. With its prisons and jails now holding
some 2.4 million inmates-roughly one in
every 100 adults-the United States has the
highest incarceration rate of any free nation.
As a proportion of its population, the United
States incarcerates five times more people
than Britain, nine times more than Germany,
and 12 times more than Japan. No other rich
country is nearly as punitive as the Land of
the Free The Economist has declared.
But a highly significant fact went largely
unremarked amid the hubbub: The popula-
tion of the nation's state prisons, which house
all but a relative handful of convicted felons,
decreased by nearly 3,000. Although the drop
was slight in percentage terms, it was the first
since 1972. (State prisons held 1.4 million in-
mates at the end of 2009 and federal prisons
more than 200,000, while the number held
in local jails, mostly for minor crimes, aver-
aged about 770,000 over the course of the
year, and the majority had yet to face trial.) In
California, which has the nation's largest state
prison system, with nearly 170,000 men and
women behind bars, the prison population
fell for the first time in 38 years. The national
prison population-including those held in
federal facilities-grew by less than one per-
cent, the slowest rate in the last decade. These
changes mean it is very likely that we are see-
ing the beginning of the end of America's long
commitment to what some critics call mass
' Reprinted with permission from the Winter 2011
issue of the Wilson Quarterly

If that shift does occur, it will not be
because the United States has solved its crime
problem. In fact, if there were a close correla-
tion between crime rates and incarceration,
the prisons would have begun emptying out in
the late 1990s, when crime in most of its forms
began to decrease.
How did we get here? Soaring crime rates,
especially in the inner cities, are the most ob-
vious part of the explanation. From 1960 to
1990, the overall U.S. crime rate increased
more than fivefold, the frequency of violent
crime nearly quadrupled, and the murder rate
doubled. Drug use increased. The upsurge was
widely blamed on lenient punishment, par-
ticularly for violent repeat offenders. Legisla-
tures responded by passing get tough mea-
sures, including sentencing guidelines (which
required prison sentences for some offenders
who in the past might have been put on pro-
bation), so-called three-strikes-and-you're-out
laws (which mandated prison terms for repeat
offenders), mandatory minimum sentences
(forcing judges to impose fixed sentences re-
gardless of mitigating factors), and truth-in-
sentencing measures (requiring inmates to
serve a greater proportion of their imposed
sentence before becoming eligible for parole).
These policy changes increased both the prob-
ability of going to prison if convicted and the
length of prison terms.
Many liberal critics, pointing out that two-
thirds of those imprisoned in federal and state
facilities are African Americans and Hispanics,
contended that mass incarceration is little
more than a reworked form of racial and social
domination-the new Jim Crow,' as Michelle
Alexander, a law professor at Ohio State Uni-
versity, put it in the title of her recent book.

But virtually all those who study the mat-
ter now agree that imprisonment has reached
often counterproductive levels, particularly
in the case of drug possession and other non-
violent crimes. The prominent conservative
scholar James Q. Wilson, whose book Think-
ing About Crime (1975) set the national crime
control agenda during the 1980s, recently
wrote, This country imprisons too many
people on drug charges with little observable
effect. In my travels around the country I
have conducted an unscientific survey of pris-
on administrators, and nearly all of them say
that 10 to 15 percent of their inmates could be
safely released.
What we are seeing today is a growing
recognition that our approach to dealing with
convicted criminals is simply too costly. Not
only is the price too high, but the benefits are
too low. The states now spend an estimated
$50 billion on corrections annually, and the
growth of these outlays over the past 20 years
has outpaced budget increases for nearly all
other essential government services, includ-
ing transportation, higher education, and
public assistance.
California, where I was involved in the cor-
rections system in various capacities under re-
form-minded governor Arnold Schwarzeneg-
ger, pours 10 percent of its massive state budget
into correctional facilities. Between 1985 and
2005, it built 21 new prisons-more than one a
year. The states prison population surged, and
so did costs: The state spent nearly $10 billion
on corrections last year, or about $50,000 per
prisoner. (The national average is $23,000.)
Now that California is grappling with a budget
crisis, it is dear that it cannot continue on this
course. The evidence for the rest of the country


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