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U.S. and Russia Reaching Record Levels of Incarceration

A new 59-nation study by The Sentencing Project reveals that Russia and the United States have reached record levels of incarceration and are far ahead of other nations in their use of imprisonment.

The study also found that a 92% increase in the U.S. rate of incarceration had little overall impact on crime rates in the ten-year period between 1985 and 1995. Despite declines in crime in the last several years, overall crime rates in 1995 remained virtually the same as in 1985 and violent crime was up by 23%.

Although the study focused on the 1985-95 decade, an analysis of preliminary crime data for 1996 indicates that while murder rates declined by 8% since 1985, overall crime rates remained essentially unchanged and violent crime was still higher by 14%.

While incarceration has some impact on crime, according to the report, the declines of the past several years are also related to more recent factors, including changes in the drug trade, demographics, policing strategies, and community behaviors.

The study, "Americans Behind Bars: U.S. and International Rates of Incarceration, 1995," is the fourth in a series conducted by The Sentencing Project since 1991. The study found that the rate of incarceration in Russia was 690 per 100,000 population and in the U.S., 600 per 100,000, about 6-10 times that of other industrialized nations and an all-time high.

The relationship between incarceration and crime rates, according to the study, has been inconsistent, with an increase in crime from 1985 to 1991, and a decrease for 1991-95, despite a continuous rise in incarceration.

The report also examined the dramatic reductions in crime in New York City in recent years and found no indication that an increase in imprisonment was responsible. During the 1990-95 period when crime was declining in New York, the jail population in the city actually declined and the state prison population increased at a substantially lower rate than other states. Changes in policing strategies, demographics, the drug trade, and other factors appear to be more promising explanations.

Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project and author of the report, stated that "Looking overall at the last ten years, we see no strong relationship between record levels of incarceration and crime. A variety of other factors appear to have contributed to the recent drop in crime. This confirms the need for a balanced set of approaches if a national crime policy is to succeed in the long run."

The study found that increasing incarceration is likely to lead to "diminishing returns" in crime control, as progressively less serious offenders are locked up. This may be particularly true in regard to drug offenders, who constituted more than a third (36%) of the increase in state prisoners from 1985 to 1994 and more than two-thirds (71%) of the increase in federal prisoners.

The report also looked at the impact of education in prison on crime control. Surveys have shown that 41% of state prisoners have not completed high school or obtained a GED, and that participation in prison education programs leads to reductions in recidivism. Despite this, prison education programs have been reduced substantially, due to Congressional action in cutting Pell grants for prisoners in 1994 and, in 16 states, through state budget actions.

The Sentencing Project called on political leaders to support a broad range of effective approaches to crime, which include: reducing youth violence by tracking sources of guns; addressing substance abuse and crime through support for drug courts, prison-based treatment programs, and pro-active prevention policies; increasing support for prison education programs; and, supporting police-community efforts to mobilize neighborhoods to work cooperatively with police in addressing underlying problems leading to crime.

The full report, "Americans Behind Bars: U.S. and International Use of Incarceration, 1995," is available for $8 from The Sentencing Project, 918 F St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20004; (202) 628-0871.

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