WALTER C. RECKLESS MEMORIAL LECTURE
Thinking About Prison and its Impact in the Twenty-First Century
607 OHIO STATE JOURNAL OF CRIMINAL LAW - Vol 2:607 608
By: Marc Mauer*
As is now well known, the United States has attained the dubious distinction of maintaining the world’s largest prison population, both in absolute and per capita terms. This “race to incarcerate,” a record three decade rise in imprisonment, has resulted in a combined prison and jail population of 2.1 million, yielding an incarceration rate of more than 700 per 100,000 population. This rate surpasses that of Russia (which in recent years has achieved substantial reductions in its inmate population through widespread amnesties) and is about five to eight times the rate of most other industrialized nations. Thus, we have the incongruity of the wealthiest society in human history using prison to a degree previously unknown in any democratic society. Regardless of one’s political ideology or beliefs regarding crime control policy, this should be a disturbing development to all.
Analysts contend that these developments have their origins in one or more interrelated political dynamics. These variously include a “tough on crime” movement more focused on the electoral prospects of political leaders than actual social impact; an increasingly conservative public and political climate; a means of social control of the African American population following the demise of the Jim Crow era; and an attempt by a postmodern state to impose a sense of authority over seemingly intractable social disorder. These theoretical approaches are all worthy of analysis, but let us assume for the moment that the goal of mass incarceration has been as stated by its proponents; that is, to enhance public safety through one or more of the various ways that incarceration can produce reductions in crime.
My goal in this analysis is not to address this issue in great detail, but to propose some general findings. I think it is fair to state, based on the evidence and analyses developed by key researchers in the field, the following propositions:
• Mass imprisonment has had an impact on crime, but one that is considerably less than its proponents have claimed.
• To the extent that prison produces significant impacts on crime, we are now well past the point of diminishing returns in this relationship.
• Even to the extent that prison produces reductions in crime, this finding does not tell us whether incarceration is more effective than other social interventions in producing these outcomes.
• Approaches to reducing crime that do not involve additional investments within the criminal justice system have received less attention in the research community and are rarely a subject of sustained analysis in political debate.
Continued analysis of these relationships is important, of course, in order to aid in the development of public policy. But as we have entered the era of mass imprisonment, a new set of dynamics has come into play that calls for an understanding of the ways in which the effect of prison on society is both quantitatively and qualitatively different than in previous times. These effects have been conceptualized as collateral consequences of imprisonment, and they take the form, as my colleagues and I have described in our recent book, of “invisible punishments.”1 They are “invisible” both in the sense that they are rarely acknowledged in the courtroom when they are imposed, and equally rarely assessed in public policy discourse. These themes, and their effects on individuals and communities, should be the subject of careful scrutiny by observers of prison dynamics.