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New Study Shows “Tough on Crime” Generation Spent More Time in Prison Despite Falling Crime Rate

The collaboration of experts from the State University of New York at Albany and the University of Pennsylvania analyzed data from 1.6 million prisoners, focusing mainly on North Carolina during 1972 to 2016, as it was representative of the idea of longer prisons sentences in an attempt to curb crime across the country.

The highly detailed study found that the crime rates for rape, aggravated assault, burglary, and other violent crimes were higher in the 1970s than in the 1990s. Yet, those adults who came of age during the 1990s had higher rates of arrest and incarceration than their counterparts just 20 years earlier.

Titled “Locking Up My Generation,” the study’s authors identified a “cohort effect” that filled the nation's prisons in record time, which they defined as a group that shares “common historical or social experiences.” To be more specific, it’s a group of people the same age who got caught up in the “war on drugs” during the crack epidemic.

For example, they said those who turned 20 in 1990 and got locked up would be 50 today — and likely still in prison. Whereas those who turned 20 in 2020 had less than half the rate of incarceration as their previous generation. This is because of several factors, the authors noted.

One reason is that harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes during that earlier era means more twenty-something-year-olds were handed long prison sentences. And if they did get out of prison, they were more likely to be rearrested and given even longer sentences because of the stricter laws enacted to punish repeat offenders.

Even though the national crime rate has dropped to the lowest levels last seen since the 1960s, the experts said the incarceration rate for the U.S. still remained about four times the level of that in the 1960s. They attributed the increase to the harsh sentences of the tough-on-crime era.

“The unprecedented rise in incarceration rates can be attributed to an increasingly punitive political climate surrounding criminal justice policy formed in a period of rising crime and rapid social change,” the study said, quoting the National Research Council. This, then, provided a series of policy choices that “significantly increased sentence lengths, required prison time for minor offenses, and intensified punishment for drug crimes.”

Simply put, adults who entered the criminal justice system in their early twenties back in the 1980s and 1990s, “became enmeshed in a sequence of incarceration throughout their entire life course,” the authors wrote. “In this fashion, a boom in crime and punishment at a given historical moment carries forward through time, even as the politics and policies that were enacted in response diminish in the rearview mirror of history.”

That is, after the realization that the tough-on-crime and war-on-drugs stances weren’t working, the casualties of those draconian laws enacted at the time were forgotten and left to sit in prison serving sentences everyone now says were ineffective.

The experts found that the group affected by the lock-em-up attitude three decades ago was the Black community. “It turns out that that sentencing shocks have been felt most acutely among the African-American population,” they wrote.

Of course, as the cohort born in the 1970s ages out of prison, prison populations will continue to fall. But the authors say that decreasing punishment is the best way to ensure that a generation doesn’t get stuck in a cycle of long prison sentences that do no good. “The solution to ‘mass incarceration’ is change in the criminal justice policies that reduce punishment,” they concluded. “Federal and state policymakers should revise current criminal justice policies to significantly reduce the rate of incarceration in the United States.”

The report called for additional research and said, “The challenge now is to use the micro data…to flesh out how this process plays out over the life course.” 


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