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May 6, 2008 -- (US)

U.S. Prison Policy Needs Reform

From Oxford Analytica

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The United States currently accounts for approximately 25% of the global prison population, despite possessing less than 5% of the world's population. The U.S. prison population is now so large that it has important economic, fiscal and social consequences that are resistant to policy reform.

A series of recent international studies have underlined the stark picture of prison life and numbers in the United States, compared with other countries. The danger is that the political and economic rationale behind the massive prison population may have created a self-reinforcing cycle.

There are 2.3 million to 2.5 million prisoners in the United States:

* The United States incarcerates 751 per 100,000 members of the population.

* This is a major departure from the historic incarceration rate.

There are several reasons for the comparatively high incarceration rate:

1. Public policy. Federal and state courts follow tougher sentencing guidelines than other countries. Furthermore, several policy developments have helped increase incarceration rates. Extending sentence terms has been a bipartisan policy.

2. New penal regime. Following federal declarations of "war on drugs" and "war on crime," anti-crime policy has become a mainstay of the role of U.S. federal and state authority in society. New penal policies were devised and implemented in the 1980s, which combined novel elements such as:

* much tougher attempts to "manage" the criminally dangerous part of the population through extended incarceration; and

* greater attention to populist demands for harsher punishment.

3. Welfare substitution. This new penal regime coincided with other public policy developments that rolled back the welfare state. Imprisonment, in many cases, became a substitute for cutbacks in other social welfare policies.

Prisons have become a major U.S. industry. Their scale sets in lucrative logistic and organizational dynamics, and has created a network of vested interests. Many new state and federal prisons have been deliberately located in economically deprived rural communities, where they have become the principal employer.

Some economists and social scientists describe this as a "prison-industrial complex." It subsidizes jobs for those running prisons and through resources it buys in from the private sector. Moreover, some private employers take advantage of exceptionally low prison pay to outsource basic packing, assembling or services work to prisoners.

High rates of incarceration have numerous negative legacies, but two stand out:

* Ethnic divisions. Blacks and increasingly Hispanics are imprisoned at an exceptionally disproportionate rate.

* Disenfranchisement. Historically, felon disenfranchisement has been a key feature of the U.S. penal system. Given that the prison population is not a random profile of the citizenry, this has important political effects. Unsurprisingly, many former felons fail properly to reintegrate into society following release.

The current role of the criminal justice system in the U.S. political economy will face two near-term challenges:

* Fiscal pressure. Collapsing housing prices have hit state budgets particularly hard, which will make it difficult to expand the prison system at the current rate.

* Political change. The unaddressed problems with the current harsh incarceration policy have begun to attract political attention.

Current U.S. prison policy has many deleterious economic and social effects, and is fiscally unsustainable. Despite the resistance of entrenched interests and political lobby groups, reform -- principally a reduced rate of incarceration for non-violent offenders -- is inevitable.

To read an extended version of this article, log on to Oxford Analytica's Web site:

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