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FedCURE Report: Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?

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Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Hart Senate Office Building

Washington, D.C. 

Julia M. Fantacone, of Kimmitt, Senter, Coates, & Weinfurter, Inc, Washington, DC attended this meeting and filed report on behalf of FedCURE.


Glenn C. Loury (Brown University)

Bruce Western (Harvard University)

Alphonso Albert (Second Chances Program)

Michael Jacobson (Vera Institute of Justice)

Pat Nolan (Prison Fellowship)

This was a joint committee hearing focusing primarily on the economic effects of mass incarceration in the United States with consideration of racial disparities, drug sentencing, and prisoner reentry. Congressional members present included Sen. James Web (D-VA), Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Rep. Robert Scott (D-VA), Rep. Phil English (R-PA), Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), and Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY).

Members of the committee voiced concerns about the rise of the incarceration rate in the United States over the past decade. Senator Casey called it, “a human tragedy, and a fiscal nightmare.” One main concern is that there have been enormous economic costs associated with prison construction and operation as well as productivity and wage loss for prisoners upon reentry. Senator Scott stated that, “the cradle to prison pipeline has many more economic costs than the cradle to college pipeline.” A second issue discussed was the disproportionate impact incarceration has had on minority communities. Much of the growth in the prison population is due to changes in legislation, mainly drug policy, not an increase in crime.  Prisoner reentry was a top concern and all members agreed that the Second Chance Act was on the right path to alleviate prisoner reentry problems. Senator Brownback stated, “It’s a bipartisan bill with a lot of support. It is ready to go to the floor. I think we can get a signature on it from President Bush.”

Glenn C. Loury, Professor of Social Sciences, Brown University


·        The United States imprisons at a far higher rate than any industrialized democracy in the entire world

·        A high level of imprisonment is not a rational response to high levels of crime

·        The extent of racial disparity among those imprisoned is greater than in any other major area of American social life

·        The war on drugs has not been successful and has had a disparaging affect on the African American community


·        Repeal mandatory minimum drug sentencing and release non-violent drug offenders

Bruce Western, Department of Sociology, Harvard University


·        The rise in incarceration rates today is five times higher than in 1972 with the highest increases in uneducated African American males

·        The economic opportunities for those released from prison have been greatly diminished due to erratic work histories and little education


·        Reexamine consequences that limit ex-felons to benefits and employment

·        Support prisoner reentry programs that provide transitional employment and other services

·        Support the establishment of local social impact panels to evaluate unwarranted disparities between juvenile and adult incarceration

Alphonso Albert, Second Chances Program, Norfolk, Virginia


·        Most incarcerated individuals have families who in turn end up becoming incarcerated

·        Prisoners need pre-release planning and post-release assistance services to assist them in making a positive transition from prison back into their community

·        Prisoners need assistance in attaining identification such as a driver license, housing placement, job training, and employment


·        Fund reentry programs that provide pre-release planning and post-release assistance

Michael Jacobson, Director, Vera Institute of Justice


·        The rate of growth of spending on corrections in state budgets far exceeds that for education, health care, social services, transportation, and environmental protection

·        Putting greater numbers of people in prison as a way to achieve public safety is one of the least effective ways of decreasing crime

·        Once prisoners leave they are confronted with overwhelming barriers to reentry


·        Begin to systematically transfer some resources used to imprison people into community based prevention and reentry programs

Pat Nolan, Vice President, Prison Fellowship


·        Inmates do not leave prison as law-abiding citizens; the skills they learn to survive while in prison make them anti-social.

·        Upon reentry, prisoners will need to find food, shelter, employment. These logistics and choices will create feelings of intense stress, often becoming overwhelming.


·        Upon reentry, prisoners need a mentor to assist them with decisions and make them accountable for their choices

·        Reentry planning should begin as soon as a prisoner is sentenced

·        Prison should assist inmates in strengthening family connections

·        Pre-existing conditions of drug abuse, physical abuse, and marital conflict should be resolved while in prison

·        Inmates should be encouraged to participate in faith based programs

Questions and Answers


Webb: Concerning disparities among minorities in drug cases, the point of arrest identifies the criminal, rather than the crime actually taking place. How does that skew the situation?  

Loury: In my testimony, there is a chart of New York City. It shows the concentration of incarceration rates among neighborhoods. The areas that are in red have the highest rate. You can see that the neighborhoods where blacks live have the highest concentration. In 1985, those were small areas in red but you can see that in 1996 the concentration in those same areas has grown. Strong families are important, but family participation and causation and not correlated. Common factors of distress among these families are underlying issues.

Western: Those incarcerated are not any less likely to have children. Children parallel their parents. There is an increase of divorce and separation among those incarcerated. There is usually a corrosive family structure. In addition, decisions about policing create even more disparities among the already disadvantaged.

Albert: Look at every point in the process of charging someone with a crime. What type of offense was it? How do you charge them? The decision making point in minority areas is often to the extreme.

Jacobson: We are spending money to hold criminals in communities in upstate prisons instead of using that same amount of money in the community where the criminal lives.

Nolan: Prisoners cannot keep in touch with their families. There are shorter and shorter visiting times. Phone bills are skyrocketing and phone call times are becoming shorter and shorter. The prisons need more programs to keep their families together.

Casey: Reiterate the statement you were making before about emergency room treatments for drug related maladies.

Loury: The chart in my testimony presents statistics regarding the number of people incarcerated, the number of drug related emergency room visits, and the number of people buying drugs. As you can see, the amount in prisons and emergency rooms is increasing but the amount of drugs purchased is also increasing. If people go to jail or are hospitalized it is not closing down the market, it just makes room for someone else to more in and start selling drugs. Drugs are much cheaper and easier to get.

Casey: I am going to play the devils advocate for the committee now. What if someone asked us why we were even arguing about this by saying that if it is against the law to have an illegal substance than that person should be penalized for having one and that is the end of the story? Is this a problem with the policy of arrest or is it a problem with what happens after the arrest?

Albert: When a police officer finds someone with an illegal substance, they have two options. They can take that person to jail. The person would have to post bail or stay in jail and possibly lose their job, family, etc. Alternatively, the officer could give the offender a court summons. The offender could go in front of a judge who could then send them to jail or give them community service. If the offender came to the hearing from the street, they would most likely get community service. If the offender was taking to jail right away and then summoned to court the judge would probably send that person back to prison.

Casey: Is there any uniformity on the street level or is it up to the police officer?

Albert: Police reflect the sentiment in their community. It depends where funding and resources are directed. If the community has outreach or service, programs in place than the officer may be inclined to rehabilitate a person instead of sending them to jail. Communities need justice but officers can adjust the way they police based on their community.

Jacobson: We tend to sue jail for every type of crime instead of just the types of crime it is truly useful for. We cannot afford to spend money to keep every person in prison. Most laws that put people in prison are for things that people do not like, not things that are truly harmful to us.

Nolan: Prosecutors are just looking for numbers to fill quotas and make them look tough but they are often just setting people up.

Webb: Does length of a sentence deter crime? Is there a different process we can take for people with drug possession?

Loury: We should repeal mandatory minimums and release non-violent drug offenders.

Jacobson: People would be more afraid of swift apprehension than a long sentence. Offenders do not think they can be caught. They are not thinking about how many years the sentence will be, neither are the members of congress who make the sentencing laws. There is no evidence that marginal increases in length of a sentence are deterrents. In addition, we keep many people beyond “crime committing years,” into their geriatric years. Too many elderly are in prisons that are not likely to commit another crime.

Nolan: Treatment of drugs is so much more important than incarceration.


Report filed for FedCURE by: KIMMITT, SENTER, COATES & WEINFURTER, Washington, DC.


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