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Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?

Steven Raphael, Michael A. Stoll

Publication Year: 2013

Between 1975 and 2007, the American incarceration rate increased nearly fivefold, a historic increase that puts the United States in a league of its own among advanced economies. We incarcerate more people today than we ever have, and we stand out as the nation that most frequently uses incarceration to punish those who break the law. What factors explain the dramatic rise in incarceration rates in such a short period of time? In Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll analyze the shocking expansion of America’s prison system and illustrate the pressing need to rethink mass incarceration in this country. Raphael and Stoll carefully evaluate changes in crime patterns, enforcement practices and sentencing laws to reach a sobering conclusion: So many Americans are in prison today because we have chosen, through our public policies, to put them there. They dispel the notion that a rise in crime rates fueled the incarceration surge; in fact, crime rates have steadily declined to all-time lows. There is also little evidence for other factors commonly offered to explain the prison boom, such as the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill since the 1950s, changing demographics, or the crack-cocaine epidemic. By contrast, Raphael and Stoll demonstrate that legislative changes to a relatively small set of sentencing policies explain nearly all prison growth since the 1980s. So-called tough on crime laws, including mandatory minimum penalties and repeat offender statutes, have increased the propensity to punish more offenders with lengthier prison sentences. Raphael and Stoll argue that the high-incarceration regime has inflicted broad social costs, particularly among minority communities, who form a disproportionate share of the incarcerated population. Why Are So Many Americans in Prison? ends with a powerful plea to consider alternative crime control strategies, such as expanded policing, drug court programs, and sentencing law reform, which together can end our addiction to incarceration and still preserve public safety.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

Tables and Figures

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pp. ix-xvi

About the Authors

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pp. xvii-xviii

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pp. xix-xx

The findings in this book rest on our research over the past decade on various aspects of incarceration and corrections policy. Along the way we have received valuable feedback, encouragement, and support from countless colleagues, friends, and family. We are especially thankful for the feedback over...

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Chapter 1. The Emergence of Mass Incarceration

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pp. 1-31

Between 1970 and the present, a form of American exceptionalism has emerged that stands in stark contrast to the conventional sense of this phrase. Alexis de Tocqueville described an American exceptionalism based on the egalitarian nature of the American political system and the public institutions that ensure political competition and that balance and check the powers of...

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Chapter 2. Understanding and Documenting the Determinants of Incarceration Growth

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pp. 32-67

There are several stylized facts about the U.S. prison population that the lay reader is likely to find surprising. First, prisons are often mischaracterized as places where we lock people up and throw away the key. In fact, the typical person admitted to prison on a new felony conviction is likely to be released...

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Chapter 3. What Would Current Incarceration Rates Be Under Previous Sentencing Practices?

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pp. 68-96

We have documented several empirical facts about changes in the U.S. criminal justice system. First, someone convicted of a felony today is considerably more likely to be sentenced to a prison term relative to someone convicted in years past. This is especially the case for those convicted of nonviolent felonies...

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Chapter 4. The Policy Changes Driving Incarceration Growth

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pp. 97-120

The explosive growth of the U.S. prison population since the mid-1970s stands in stark contrast to the relative stability of the prison population during the preceding half-century. In a widely cited article, the criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Jacqueline Cohen (1973) noted the remarkable stability of the U.S. incarceration rate and posited natural predetermined levels of...

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Chapter 5. Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill and Growth in the U.S. Prison Population

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pp. 121-161

Chapters 1 through 4 were devoted to explaining the increase in the nation’s incarceration rate since the mid-1970s. 1 The empirical decomposition and review of policy history yield a clear answer to the question posed in the title of this book. Namely, policy choices that have expanded the range of offenses to which incarceration is applied and the severity of prison sentences handed...

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Chapter 6. Demographic Change, the Economy, and the Crack Epidemic

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pp. 162-200

As we have emphasized throughout this book, policy choices as well as criminal behavior ultimately determine a nation’s incarceration rate. Specifically, the degree to which a nation decides to use prison as punishment and the intensiveness with which such punishment is employed determine who is sent to prison and for how long. Of course, except in the case of a wrongful...

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Chapter 7. Incarceration and Crime

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pp. 201-239

On July 31, 2006, the Italian Parliament passed legislation that reduced the sentences of most Italian prison inmates by three years, effective August 1, 2006. The clemency applied only to inmates convicted of a subset of felonies committed prior to May of that year. The passage of the “collective clemency” bill followed a six-year debate surrounding Italian prison conditions, spurred...

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Chapter 8. What Now?

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pp. 240-264

In this book, we have documented a tremendous shift in criminal justice policy in the United States that has rendered the nation first in the world in the number of its residents who are involuntarily confined in prisons and jails. Over three decades, our incarceration rate has more than quadrupled, with commensurate increases in the public resources devoted to maintaining...


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pp. 265-304


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pp. 285-302


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pp. 303-316

E-ISBN-13: 9781610448161
E-ISBN-10: 1610448162

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1