By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
Americans tend to believe, as a matter of common sense, that sending men to prison prevents crime. Persons who are “behind bars” can’t commit crime. “Get tougher on crime” political rhetoric and legislation is often reinforced by the argument that “only if that recently released prisoner had not been freed, this particular crime would not occur.”
However, 30 years of evidence suggests otherwise. Social scientists find a “puzzling discontinuity” between imprisonment rates, which increased every year from 1972 to 2009, and crime rates, which have been consistently inconsistent—up and down—during the same period.1
Even more disconcerting is the growing consensus among scholars that more incarceration “will produce ever decreasing marginal returns in public safety.”2 Perhaps more troubling is the way that politicians and the general public do not perceive how high incarceration rates in poor communities of color tear apart the very social relationships that offer the best opportunity to nurture the well-being of our children and ultimately the common good of society.
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