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With fewer people in prison, there may be a greater need for social services in the community. It will be necessary to carefully assess available services to determine if there are sufficient quality services in accessible locations to meet the needs of otherwise imprisoned members of the community. Drug treatment, health care, employment, and housing will face especially strong demand. Sustainably reducing incarceration will depend in part on whether communities can meet the needs of those who would otherwise be locked up. If large numbers of intensely disadvantaged prime-age men and women are resituated in poor communities without appropriate social supports, the effects could be broadly harmful and could discredit decisions to reduce the use of incarceration.
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When evaluating criminal justice policies, researchers and policy makers may turn first to the effects on crime rates. Most studies conclude that rising incarceration rates reduced crime, but the evidence does not clearly show by how much. A number of studies also find that the crime-reducing effects of incarceration become smaller as the incarceration rate grows, although this may be reflecting the aging of prison populations. As with many rigorous assessments of large historical events, a high level of scientific certainty about the effects of increased incarceration rates is elusive. The relationships between incarceration, crime, sentencing policy, social inequality, and the dozens of other variables that describe the growth of incarceration are complex, variable across time and place, and mutually determining.
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The findings and conclusions presented here do not easily lend themselves to a simple calculation of costs and benefits. The policies that produced very high rates of incarceration grew out of a historical period of rapid change and social conflict. By greatly expanding the use of penal confinement, the policies charted a new direction for the American criminal justice system. No other Western democracy went so far down this path. Through the 1990s and 2000s, crime rates fell significantly, but the evidence indicates it is unlikely that the rise in incarceration rates played a powerful role in this trend. Against weak evidence for large benefits, there is also the chance of significant social costs for individuals who are incarcerated, their families, and communities. The strong correlation of incarceration with unemployment, poverty, family disruption, poor health and drug addiction is very clear. Causality is harder to disentangle, but experiments and statistical adjustment point to the real possibility of negative social effects. These correlations and negative effects are concentrated almost entirely in poor, especially poor minority, communities. For policy and public life, the size of the effects of incarceration may be less important than the overwhelming evidence of the correlation between very high levels of incarceration, race, poverty, and the myriad of accompanying social problems.
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To frame the policy implications of the evidence presented in this report, we return to the normative principles first presented in and elaborated in . The committee noted that, over the past 40 years, principles that would restrain the use of prison as a response to crime were given less weight in public discourse than the crime control mission for punishment. The principle of proportionality—that the sanction imposed for violation of the criminal law should be proportionate to the seriousness of the crime—is challenged by harsh sentences for minor offenses. The principle of parsimony—that the criminal sanction imposed for an offense should be sufficient but not greater than the punishment necessary to achieve sentencing goals—is inconsistent with overly long sentences. The principle of citizenship—the notion that the consequences of a prison sentence should not be so severe as to substantially weaken one’s status as a member of society—is tested by conditions of confinement that can be considered inhumane. Finally, the principle of social justice, as applied to prisons—that prisons should promote, not diminish, a fair distribution of resources, rights, and opportunities—is strained when incarceration becomes pervasive in poor and minority communities.
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Originating in a period of rising crime rates and social foment and driven by punitive sentencing policy, the steep increase in incarceration in the United States was carried out with little regard for an objective evaluation of benefits or possible harms. This committee was charged with assessing the causes of the steep increase and the consequences that followed.