Between 1975 and 2007, the American incarceration rate increased nearly fivefold, a historic increase that puts the United States in a league of its own among advanced economies. The United States incarcerates more people today and stands out as the nation that most frequently uses incarceration to punish those who break the law. What factors explain the dramatic rise in incarceration rates in such a short period of time? In Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?, published by the Russell Sage Foundation, authors Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll analyze the shocking expansion of America’s prison system and illustrate the pressing need to rethink mass incarceration in this country.
Steven Raphael is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. His research focuses on the economics of low-wage labor markets, housing, and the economics of crime and corrections. Raphael is the editor in Chief of Industrial Relations and a research fellow at the University of Michigan National Poverty Center, the University of Chicago Crime Lab, the Public Policy Institute of California, and IZA, Bonn Germany. Raphael holds a Ph.D. in economics from UC Berkeley.
Michael A. Stoll is Professor and Chair of Public Policy in the School of Public Affairs, and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Urban Planning. His main research interests include the study of urban poverty and inequality (specifically the interplay of labor markets, race/ethnicity, geography and policy), and crime and prisons.
The authors have been working on the collateral labor market consequences of a criminal conviction and incarceration for several years. The idea for this book came during a seminar at NYU Wagner. “Amy Schwartz, an APPAM member, asked the obvious question of why is it that so many minority men have criminal records and done time,” Raphael recalls. “I didn’t have a good answer, so we spent the next six years exploring various aspects of this question.”
What they found was that the U.S. incarcerates on a per-capita basis that is many times the rate in Western European countries, and much higher than any other country in the world. “The U.S. has experienced incredible growth in its prison population,” says Raphael. “This is nearly entirely the product of policy choices made in state legislatures and the federal government. Our sentencing practices have been decisively more punitive. As a result, our prison populations have grown to unprecedented levels.”
The authors found that the U.S. incarceration rate is heavily due to changes in sentencing policy rather than a high—relative to other countries—or higher—relative to history—propensity of Americans to commit crime. “Several common explanations for the explosive growth in the prison population, upon close inspection, are wrong,” Raphael says. For example, the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill can explain only a small fraction of growth. Additionally, the country’s demographics in terms of age, education, and foreign-born have shifted towards lower incarceration groups. “Changes in income inequality since the mid-70s combined with research on the sensitivity of criminal offending to wage changes imply relatively modest increases in offending and cannot possibly explain the near five-fold increase in the nation’s incarceration rate,” says Raphael. “Also, the crack-cocaine epidemic commenced after the trends towards higher incarceration rates was well on its way.”
Even after the waning of the cocaine epidemic, incarceration rates continued to rise. “In general, explanations of prison growth that are rooted in changes in criminal behavior fail to account for the changes we have experienced,” says Raphael. The authors found surprisingly through their research that incarceration is much less effective at high incarceration rates relative to low rates. Says Raphael: “In other words, there is strong evidence of diminishing returns to scale in terms of the crime fighting benefits of prison.”