Decarcerating America

Social work is the profession to lead the historic reversal of mass incarceration (i.e., decarceration) in the U.S. For nearly four decades, the theme for U.S. prisons and jails has been “growth.” In that time, incarceration rates increased sevenfold, making the U.S. the world leader in proportion of persons incarcerated. This growth hit a historic high in 2008, with 1 in 100 adults incarcerated, or over 2.3 million adults in U.S. jails and prisons. The expansion of U.S. incarceration has been so consistent and reliable that many have viewed it as an inevitable trend.

However, similar to the housing and dot-com bubbles of recent years, the American incarceration “bubble” may be beginning to burst. For the first time in nearly 40 years, the incarcerated population reduced slightly in 2009 after several years of plateau, and the decline has continued for four consecutive years. Some may dismiss recent incarceration declines by noting the effects of the Great Recession and subsequent budget crises, prompting many states and localities to reduce all levels of expenditures, including corrections. If the incarceration decline is purely for financial reasons, we would expect incarceration rates to rise as the economy rebounds.

But these recent declines are occurring in the midst of a growing skepticism about the effectiveness of incarceration in the U.S. The War on Drugs and other forms of severe sentencing are increasingly questioned on societal and policy levels. Recidivism studies demonstrate that about 60% of released inmates are reincarcerated within three years of release, indicating that incarceration does not achieve rehabilitation for most. A recent string of exposés in the media have illuminated the ripple effects of mass incarceration policies and the “prison for profit” phenomenon. Moreover, there is increasing attention being paid to persistent racial disparities in jail and prison settings.

We assert that incarceration declines, accumulating evidence of incarceration’s ineffectiveness, and mounting weariness about the justness of mass incarceration signify a “perfect storm” in which reversing mass incarceration is a distinct reality.

But it can’t just be decarceration, it must be smart decarceration driven by targeted prevention and rehabilitation measures, criminal justice policy reform, re-analysis of the most effective mechanisms for public safety, and resourced initiatives. If decarceration is ignored, or haphazardly addressed, it is inevitable that history will repeat itself – mass incarceration of ethnic minorities and oppressed and vulnerable groups will once again become the “American Way.”

Social work stands at the crossroads of decarceration. Our profession has long recognized the multi-leveled injustices associated with mass incarceration. We rest on a rich history of leading reform efforts in deinstitutionalization of disfranchised populations. However many agree that we largely relinquished our influence on the incarceration phenomenon during the punitive era. Decarceration marks a unique opportunity for social work to re-enter the arena of incarceration reform. Whether or not social work leads the country in identifying evidence driven approaches to decarceration could determine whether we repeat history’s mistakes of mass incarceration, or alternatively, develop a socially just state of public safety in the U.S.



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