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Do Prisons Make Us Safer?

The Benefits and Costs of the Prison Boom

Steven Raphael, Michael A. Stoll

Publication Year: 2009

The number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails more than quadrupled between 1975 and 2005, reaching the unprecedented level of over two million inmates today. Annual corrections spending now exceeds 64 billion dollars, and many of the social and economic burdens resulting from mass incarceration fall disproportionately on minority communities. Yet crime rates across the country have also dropped considerably during this time period. In Do Prisons Make Us Safer? leading experts systematically examine the complex repercussions of the massive surge in our nation’s prison system. Do Prisons Make Us Safer? asks whether it makes sense to maintain such a large and costly prison system. The contributors expand the scope of previous analyses to include a number of underexplored dimensions, such as the fiscal impact on states, effects on children, and employment prospects for former inmates. Steven Raphael and Michael Stoll assess the reasons behind the explosion in incarceration rates and find that criminal behavior itself accounts for only a small fraction of the prison boom. Eighty-five percent of the trend can be attributed to “get tough on crime” policies that have increased both the likelihood of a prison sentence and the length of time served. Shawn Bushway shows that while prison time effectively deters and incapacitates criminals in the short term, long-term benefits such as overall crime reduction or individual rehabilitation are less clear cut. Amy Lerman conducts a novel investigation into the effects of imprisonment on criminal psychology and uncovers striking evidence that placement in a high security penitentiary leads to increased rates of violence and anger—particularly in the case of first time or minor offenders. Rucker Johnson documents the spill-over effects of parental incarceration—children who have had a parent serve prison time exhibit more behavioral problems than their peers. Policies to enhance the well-being of these children are essential to breaking a devastating cycle of poverty, unemployment, and crime. John Donohue’s economic calculations suggest that alternative social welfare policies such as education and employment programs for at-risk youth may lower crime just as effectively as prisons, but at a much lower human cost. The cost of hiring a new teacher is roughly equal to the cost of incarcerating an additional inmate. The United States currently imprisons a greater proportion of its citizens than any other nation in the world. Until now, however, we’ve lacked systematic and comprehensive data on how this prison boom has affected families, communities, and our nation as a whole. Do Prisons Make Us Safer? provides a highly nuanced and deeply engaging account of one of the most dramatic policy developments in recent U.S. history.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

About the Authors

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-24

Do prisons make us safer? This question is central to the debate about the great American experiment in imprisonment that the country has undergone over the past twenty-five years. Over this period, the incarcerated population has swelled in the United States, such that incarceration is becoming a relatively common experience for many American men. This is...

PART I Prison Boom Context

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pp. 25-26

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2. Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?

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pp. 27-82

The United States currently incarcerates its residents at a rate that is greater than any other country in the world. Aggregating the state and federal-prison populations as well as inmates in local jails, there were 737 inmates per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2005 (International Centre for Prison Studies 2007). This compares with a world average of 166 per 100,000 and...

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3. The Origins of Mass Incarceration in New York State: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Local War on Drugs

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pp. 83-116

From the vantage point of the early 1970s, noted criminologists Alfred Blumstein and his colleagues (Blumstein and Cohen 1973) could point to the remarkable stability in the U.S. incarceration rate since 1925 as well as comparable evidence from several other developed industrialized countries (figure 3.1).1 Despite the economic, political, and social turbulence...

Part 2. The Benefits and Costs of the Prison Boom

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pp. 117-118

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4. The Impact of Prison on Crime

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pp. 119-150

Sentencing policy in the United States is guided by two general philosophies of punishment: a crime-control or instrumental philosophy, and a retributive philosophy. A crime-control philosophy is predicated on the expectation that punishing offenders is justified only because it produces some greater good—a reduction in crime that would not have occurred...

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5. The People Prisons Make:Effects of Incarceration on Criminal Psychology

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pp. 151-176

The rise of the drug war and the move to get “tough on crime” that began in the 1980s marked an unmitigated shift in the policy paradigm of the criminal justice system. Nowhere did this ideological change play out as clearly as it did in America’s prisons. Not only did incarceration rates surge, but what was once a system predicated on a rehabilitation ethic...

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6. Ever-Increasing Levels of Parental Incarceration and the Consequences for Children

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pp. 177-206

The enormous increase in incarceration led to a parallel, but far less documented, increase in the proportion of children who grew up with a parent incarcerated at some point during their childhood. Moreover, the concentration of these incarceration trends among less-educated African Americans has resulted in a larger gulf between the early-life experiences of...

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7. Footing the Bill: Causes and Budgetary Consequences of State Spending on Corrections

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pp. 207-238

This chapter provides an overview of state budgeting for corrections. As such it addresses the following questions: How much do states spend on corrections? To what degree has state corrections spending grown over time? How does that spending vary across the states and over time? What factors account for this variation? Finally, does rising spending on corrections...

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8. Collateral Costs: Effects of Incarceration on Employment and Earnings Among Young Workers

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pp. 239-266

The enormous increases in incarceration that have occurred in the United States over the past few decades have no doubt generated major benefits and costs to society. On the one hand, they have likely reduced crime, at least to some extent, which generates a large benefit to society. On the other hand, it has cost enormous public sums to build and operate prisons...

Part 3. Are We at a Socially Optimal Level of Imprisonment?

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pp. 267-268

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9. Assessing the Relative Benefits of Incarceration: Overall Changes and the Benefits on the Margin

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pp. 269-342

In June 1956 President Dwight Eisenhower signed a bill launching the interstate highway system in the United States. Over the next twenty years, close to 40,000 miles of superhighways were built across America. As the era of massive federal highway building came to an end in the mid-1970s, it was replaced by the next massive public-works project in America: the...


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pp. 343-354

E-ISBN-13: 9781610444651
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871548603

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Corrections -- United States.
  • Prison administration -- United States.
  • Prisons -- United States.
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