Do Prisons Make Us Safer? The Benefits and Costs of the Prison Boom.

Author:Homant, Robert J.
Position:Book review

Do Prisons Make Us Safer? The Benefits and Costs of the Prison Boom, edited by Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 2009, 343 pp.

As the title suggests, Do Prisons Make Us Safer? explores whether the increase in the rate in imprisonment since the mid-1970s has resulted in less crime than there would have been under some lesser level of incarceration. Editors Steven Raphael and Michael A. Stoll are joined by nine other authors in a series of nine chapters that examine the evidence concerning the effects of prison. The argument is an old one. From the mid-1970s until about 1990, a steady and dramatic increase in the rate of incarceration was unable to suppress the U.S.'s historically high crime rate. At that time, opponents of incarceration argued that since imprisonment was not helping, it should be greatly reduced. Then the 1990s produced a somewhat unexpected decrease in crime that has continued through the present. Defenders of get-tough policies saw this as a vindication of their position, but opponents of incarceration wondered why we were not experiencing a low-crime dividend: With crime now at about 60 percent of its early 1990s peak, shouldn't we start to see significant reductions in incarceration? While there has been a slowing of the increase, and even a leveling of the prison population in some states, we seem stuck with a high and expensive level of incarceration. Fearful, however, that the level incarceration was at least partly responsible for the decrease in crime, many legislatures and some policy experts are reluctant to too hastily reduce sentence lengths, increase parole and probation, and adopt a "harm reduction" model for dealing with the drug problem--the main proposals afoot for reducing the two-million plus currently incarcerated.

Each of the chapters in this book offers a highly detailed examination of some aspect of the incarceration problem, and it is not possible to do them each justice in a brief review. Rather, I will generalize about the book as a whole and then single out a few highlights that struck me as especially worthwhile. First, the book is highly methodological. After 30 years of research and debate on the effectiveness of prisons for achieving rehabilitation, deterrence and incapacitation, the arguments have grown exceedingly sophisticated. The authors are well aware of the pitfalls of trying to interpret data without controlling for all possible biases. This...

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