New study finds 39% of American prisoners do not belong behind bars

Mass incarceration in Arizona

Per the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, 39% of the 1.46 million Americans currently locked away in state and federal prisons – about 576,000 people – are being incarcerated with little public safety rationale.

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According to the study, these 576,000 prisoners could be more appropriately sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison stay, with limited impact on public safety. Releasing these people from prison would save taxpayers $20 billion per year, and almost $200 billion over 10 years: enough money to employ 270,000 new police officers, or 360,000 probation officers, or 327,000 school teachers. Among the study’s other findings:

  • Alternatives to prison are likely to be more effective sentences than incarceration for about 364,000 lower-level offenders – 25% of the current U.S. prison population. Researchers have shown that prison does little to rehabilitate these kinds of offenders, and that incarceration often increases recidivism in such cases.
  • 212,000 prisoners – 14% of the total prison population – have already served sufficiently long prison terms and could be released within the next year with little risk to public safety.
  • 79% of U.S. prisoners suffer from either drug addiction or mental illness, and 40% suffer from both. Alternative interventions such as treatment would be more effective sanctions for many of these people.

– Joel Feinman

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