One of us is a former Treasury secretary, the other directs a criminal-justice institute. But we’ve reached the same conclusions. America’s overreliance on incarceration is exacting excessive costs on individuals and communities, as well as on the national economy. Sentences are too long, and parole and probation policies too inflexible. There is too little rehabilitation in prison and inadequate support for life after prison.
Crime itself has a terrible human cost and a serious economic cost. But appropriate punishment for those who are a risk to public safety shouldn’t obscure the vast deficiencies in the criminal-justice system that impose a significant drag on the economy.
The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly one of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is five to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies, according to a groundbreaking, 464-page report released this year by the National Academy of Sciences. America puts people in prison for crimes that other nations don’t, mostly minor drug offenses, and keeps them in prison much longer. Yet these long sentences have had at best a marginal impact on crime reduction.
This is not only a serious humanitarian and social issue, but one with profound economic and fiscal consequences. In an increasingly competitive global economy, equipping Americans for the modern workforce is an economic imperative. Excessive incarceration harms productivity. People in prison are people who aren’t working. And without effective rehabilitation, many are ill-equipped to work after release.
For the more than 600,000 people who leave prison and re-enter society every year, finding employment can be a severe challenge. Prison time carries a social stigma, which makes finding any job, let alone a good job, all too difficult. The Labor Department doesn’t track the unemployment rate for people with prison records.
But a 2006 study by the Independent Committee on Reentry and Employment found that up to 60% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed one year after release, with their unemployment rates rising to above 65% during the 2008-09 recession, according to a study in the Journal of Correctional Education. And even when they find employment, people who have been incarcerated earn 40% less than people of similar circumstances who have never been imprisoned, according to a study by the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Faced with obstacles to gainful employment, it’s no surprise that 43% of people released from prison end up back behind bars within three years, according to a recent Pew study on recidivism.
The costs of incarceration extend across generations. Nearly three million American children have a parent in prison or jail. Growing up with an incarcerated parent can harm childhood development. Research by Pew shows that children with fathers who have been incarcerated are nearly six times more likely to be expelled or suspended from school. Incarceration therefore helps perpetuate the cycle of family poverty and increases the potential for next generation criminal activity. A 2009 study by two Villanova sociologists found that, from 1980 to 2004, the official poverty rate would have fallen by more than 10% had it not been for our nation’s incarceration policies.
Many of the people who end up in prison are already acutely disadvantaged to begin with. In terms of basic education, more than a third of people in prison do not have a high-school diploma or GED, according to the Justice Department. And Columbia University researchers in 2010 found that two-thirds of people in prison struggled with drug addiction before incarceration. A study released in 2006 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 45% of federal prisoners, 56% of state prisoners and 64% of local jail inmates suffered from mental-health problems.
Instead of allowing these disadvantages to fester in prison, we need new policies that are designed to foster positive change, giving those who are incarcerated the skills they need to re-enter society as productive members of the workforce. For example, the government currently bars people in prison from receiving Pell Grants, a counterproductive policy that should be reversed. Substance abuse and mental-health treatment programs, along with educational support, can help people leave prison healthier and better-equipped to make socially productive choices.
Model programs are being piloted at the state level. For example, the Vera Institute of Justice’s Pathways from Prison to Post-Secondary Education project is working with more than 900 students in 14 prisons. The program provides college classes and re-entry support such as financial literacy training, legal services, employment counseling and workshops on family reintegration. A 2013 meta-analysis by RAND has already found that recidivism decreases when a former inmate graduates from college, which also boosts lifetime earning potential.
And clearly, we need significant sentencing and parole reform. There is widespread bipartisan agreement that we are using prison for too many crimes and for too long, with concentrated effects in many communities. One possibility for reform is the Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican Sen. Mike Lee, which boasts 30 co-sponsors and was successfully reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring. The bill’s House companion also enjoys strong bipartisan support. There are also examples of progress in statehouses around the country. In 2013, 35 states passed bills to change some aspect of how their criminal justice systems address sentencing and parole; since 2009, more than 30 states have reformed existing drug laws and sentencing practices, according to reports from Vera this year.
The time has come to make sensible reform in these four areas—sentencing, parole, rehabilitation and re-entry—a national priority. Doing so could accomplish a tremendous amount for families, communities and the U.S. economy.
Mr. Rubin, a former U.S. Treasury secretary, is co-chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Turner is president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice.