The Cost Of Prison

States fed up with high prison costs and mandatory sentencing move to change. Must the U.S. be number one in prisoners?

A correctional officer walks in a gymnasium that housed overflow prisoners in Tracy, California (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

A correctional officer walks in a gymnasium that housed overflow prisoners in Tracy, California (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The USA is number one in the world when it comes to the number of people in prison. Bigger than China. Bigger than Russia. America’s prison population is tops. 2.2 million. Bigger than fifteen American states. And its incarceration rate is number one. Three times – triple – any other nation’s. All that American imprisonment is very expensive. And very debatable when it comes to effectiveness, fairness – to justice itself. Now states across the country are reconsidering the mandatory sentencing policies and more that filled those cells. This hour, On Point: slimming down American prisons.

-Tom Ashbrook


Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project.

Brian Mann, reporter for North Country Public Radio and the Prison Time Media Project. (@BrianMannADK)

Marc Levin, policy director of Right On Crime and director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Jarvis DeBerry, editorial writer and columnist for and The Times-Picayune. (@jarvisdeberry)

From Tom’s Reading List

Washington Monthly “American streets are much safer today than they were thirty years ago, and until recently most conservatives had a simple explanation: more prison beds equal less crime. This argument was a fulcrum of Republican politics for decades, boosting candidates from Richard Nixon to George H. W. Bush and scores more in the states. Once elected, these Republicans (and their Democratic imitators) built prisons on a scale that now exceeds such formidable police states as Russia and Iran, with 3 percent of the American population behind bars or on parole and probation.”

NPR “Half a century ago, relatively few people were locked up, and those inmates generally served short sentences. But 40 years ago, New York passed strict sentencing guidelines known as the “Rockefeller drug laws” — after their champion, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller — that put even low-level criminals behind bars for decades.”

New York Times “The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.”


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