the US population in jail is large and growing

The United States incarcerates approximately 2.2 million people, resulting in a higher rate of incarceration than any other large country in the world (see chart). Current policy reverses previous guidelines, so is likely to cause the USA to stand out even further from other countries.

Two economists at the University of Texas-Austin explain.

The Issue:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive instructing federal prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense” in all but exceptional cases. This policy reverses prior guidance that encouraged the use of judiciary discretion in applying mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. More rigorous application of sentencing guidelines will subject a larger share of defendants to longer periods of incarceration, and increase the total incarcerated population in the U.S. [Emphasis added.]


What This Means:

As U.S. incarceration rates have grown, policymakers from both sides of the aisle, researchers, and advocates have become increasingly concerned about the equity and effectiveness of current incarceration policies. A growing body of economic research supports the bipartisan case for sentencing reform, through both reducing mandatory minimum sentences and increasing judicial discretion in sentencing. The recent change in sentencing guidelines issued by the Department of Justice is unlikely to be cost-effective and will provide limited public safety benefits while increasing the costs borne by the least advantaged groups of our society.

Emily Weisburst and Sandra Black, “The Economic Case for Sentencing Reform“, Econofact, 19 May 2017.

The EconoFact blog is written by a network of economists and published by the Edward R. Murrow Center at The Fletcher School at Tufts University.

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