The United States has been undergoing a debate over how we should incarcerate people. For most of the last 40 years or so, the dominant crime control strategy has been to maximize the number of crimes and the severity of the sentences for those crimes. This "tough on crime" stance has led to a significant increase in the number of people incarcerated.
Some claim this strategy has led to the fall in the crime rate that has occurred during the last decade or so. But the correlation is not all that compelling, and potentially stronger arguments can be made that it was due to changes in demographics or even the elimination of lead in gasoline.
One fact is unassailable. Incarceration costs an astounding amount of money. The overarching purpose of prisons is to take dangerous individuals off the street, provide punishment for the crime and "reform" those who will eventually return to society.
The U.S. does, in fact, take many people off the streets. We incarcerate at a rate more than three times that of another industrialized country, Germany. Our incarceration rate is the highest in the world, outstripping the next four, which include Cuba and the Russian Federation.
Cases that involve severe sentences, such as the death penalty and life without parole, often grab the headlines. While we probably sentence too many people to these terms, estimated at almost 160,000 in 2012, it means there are about 1.35 million who will eventually be released.
And many will reoffend because we do such a poor job to reform or prepare them for their return. While German authorities are reluctant to emphasize recidivism, their rate is substantially lower than ours. Of course, while high recidivism rates seem bad for public safety, from the perspective companies who operate private prisons, that is a good thing.
Ironically, it appears our "tough on crime" attitude during the last four decades has left us less safe.
Source: themarshallproject.org, "Prison Without Punishment," MAURICE CHAMMAH, September 25, 2015