Packing our prisons is not making us safer

By Robert Mann

If stuffing our prisons with criminals reduced crime, shouldn’t Louisiana be the safest place on earth? Instead, with the highest incarceration rate in the country (in the nation with the world’s highest incarceration rate), Louisiana is among the most violent states.

We have the nation’s worst murder rate – 10.8 per 100,000, 45 percent higher than runner-up Mississippi – and the nation’s highest gun-death rate. Overall, we have the seventh highest crime rate. Just tossing more and more people into prisons (with longer sentences for more crimes) has not made us safer.

It’s time to try something different. In addition to reducing the list of crimes that require prison time, Louisiana should consider releasing thousands of nonviolent inmates. They not only cost us a fortune to house, but prison for them is just a training academy for more serious crime.

There’s actually some compelling evidence in two new studies, which suggest that reducing our prison population might actually make us safer.

First, some background. Since the 1980s, states have been packing prisons with increasing numbers of nonviolent offenders, people convicted of property and drug crimes. In 1980, states sent nine people out of 100,000 to prison for drug crimes; in 2009, the number jumped to 47 of 100,000, but has since started to decline.

Louisiana was the most aggressive. In the past 20 years, Louisiana has doubled its prison population. As The Times-Picayune | reported in 2012, “One in 86 adult Louisianians is doing time, nearly double the national average.”

Despite tougher laws, harsher prison sentences and more inmates, why has Louisiana’s crime rate remained so stubbornly high? The problem, as explained in a study published in May by the Brookings Institution, is that putting more people behind bars only makes you safer if your incarceration rate is already low.

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1 thought on “Packing our prisons is not making us safer

  1. Politicians of all stripes have spent decades trying “out tough” each other on crime, using the proven method of scaring the daylights out of our citizens, who can be manipulated in so many ways through fear. That is a trend that will be virtually impossible to reverse. Fear trumps reason every time, and what politician wants to be labeled “pro crime,” even if such a label is farcical at best.

    At least part of the problem of high incarceration rates is directly related to the big money associated with incarceration.


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