America’s prisons are quickly becoming a drain on local, state, and federal budgets. It’s estimated that as many as 30% to 40% of federal prisons are now over-capacity — a number that some believe will exceed 50% within the next 10 years[i] — with state prisons suffering from similar problems.[ii]
Many believe this overcrowding is the result of an increase in crime. But crime rates have consistently fallen in the past two decades. Violent crime is at an all-time low, and property crime is not far behind.[iii] So while an increase in crime isn’t the problem, the problem isn’t simply a lack of prison space either.
The problem lies with recidivism — prisoners or probationers exiting custody or supervision and returning to a life of crime (and being arrested for doing so). It’s recidivism that keeps our prisons full.
The Purpose of Prisons: Punish, Rehabilitate, or Both?
Prisons are designed to be a punishment for some type of crime. But by their very nature — or at least the ideal of their purpose — they’re also meant to be a place of reformation and rehabilitation. By placing someone in prison as a punishment, it’s believed that they’ll be motivated to avoid engaging in criminal conduct in the future, thus turning their life around and placing them back on a law abiding path.
But we know that this reformative ideal is often unfulfilled. Most people do not break the law in the first place because of a sense of corrupt morals. They break the law because they know nothing else or are born into a culture in which breaking the law is an acceptable norm, and once they exit the prison system, they’re given even fewer opportunities to be productive members of society. Without opportunity, they can often feel as though they have no choice other than to go back to breaking the law. And the truth of the matter is that many, many doors are closed to them. Thus the appeal of returning to a criminal lifestyle.