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The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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After decades of stability from the 1920s to the early 1970s, the rate of imprisonment in the United States more than quadrupled during the last four decades. The U.S. penal population of 2.2 million adults is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world's prisoners are held in American prisons. The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly 1 out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is 5 to 10 times higher than the rates in Western Europe and other democracies. The U.S. prison population is largely drawn from the most disadvantaged part of the nation's population: mostly men under age 40, disproportionately minority, and poorly educated. Prisoners often carry additional deficits of drug and alcohol addictions, mental and physical illnesses, and lack of work preparation or experience. The growth of incarceration in the United States during four decades has prompted numerous critiques and a growing body of scientific knowledge about what prompted the rise and what its consequences have been for the people imprisoned, their families and communities, and for U.S. society.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States examines research and analysis of the dramatic rise of incarceration rates and its affects. This study makes the case that the United States has gone far past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits and has reached a level where these high rates of incarceration themselves constitute a source of injustice and social harm.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States recommends changes in sentencing policy, prison policy, and social policy to reduce the nation's reliance on incarceration. The report also identifies important research questions that must be answered to provide a firmer basis for policy. The study assesses the evidence and its implications for public policy to inform an extensive and thoughtful public debate about and reconsideration of policies.

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Suggested Citation

National Research Council. 2014. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18613.

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Publication Info

464 pages | 6 x 9
ISBNs:
  • Paperback: 978-0-309-29801-8
  • Ebook: 978-0-309-29804-9
DOI: https://doi.org/10.17226/18613
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The Growth of Incarceration in the U.S.

This video illustrates the findings of the NRC report The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences. The nation's reliance on imprisonment has not clearly improved public safety and may have had large unwanted consequences for society. A change in course is needed. The report urges policymakers to reconsider sentencing policies and to seek crime-control strategies that are more effective, with better public safety benefits and fewer unwanted consequences.

Science Unscrambled Video

After decades of stability from the 1920s to the early 1970s, the rate of imprisonment in the United States more than quadrupled during the last four decades. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States examines research and analysis of the dramatic rise of incarceration rates and its affects. This video explores the main points of this report.

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