By Stan Paul
Why are so many Americans in prison?
This is the question asked in the title of a recently published book by the policy scholars Michael Stoll and Steven Raphael. They discussed the question this past week at a lunchtime talk hosted UCLA Luskin’s Department of Public Policy.
Stoll, professor and chair of the department, and co-author Steven Raphael, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said that while asking the question seems obvious, getting to the question took a long time.
Arriving at the question posed in the title involved getting past myths such as the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill between the 1950s and 1970s, or the introduction of crack into Americas cities and its supposed related effects on crime.
And, while “race does matter,” Stoll said, citing the disproportionately high incarceration rate of African American males, “this is an American problem and requires an American solution,” pointing out that the U.S. incarceration rate is “unparalleled” (more than 700 per 100,000) compared to Europe and the rest of the world.
Stoll and Raphael, who are longtime research collaborators, looked closely at the reasons why the incarceration rate has soared over the past decades into the millions nationwide, despite historically low rates in crime. Wading through all the popular conclusions and other factors that do not explain why incarceration has gone up so rapidly, their research pointed to political choices.
The bottom line for Stoll and Raphael is that since the 1980s, this increase is “attributable to changes in sentencing policy,” which has resulted in longer sentences, for example. New sentencing guidelines, “get tough on crime” policies and other politically driven efforts to address crime have only compounded the problem, pushing the system to the point where the costs of maintaining such a high incarceration rate begin to outweigh the benefits.
In their book, published by the Russell Sage Foundation, Stoll and Raphael explore alternatives aimed at reducing this incarceration trend.
The entire discussion is available for view on UCLA Luskin’s iTunes U channel.