Study: Why Prison Population Grows As Crime Goes Down

| by Michael Allen

A new study released on August 22 suggests that the prison population in the U.S. went up during the mid-1990s even though the crime rate went down.

Ryan King, a sociology professor at Ohio State University and author of the study, used data from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission that appeared to show the prison numbers going up in the state because of repeat offenders.

"The issue is that the average offender who appears before a judge for sentencing today has a much more extensive criminal record than they did in the past," King told Ohio State University's website.

According to King, an average offender in Minnesota in 1981 had one prior felony on his or her criminal record, which subsequently increased to an average offender having two prior felonies in 1991 and 2.5 prior felonies in 2013.

"Judges' hands are tied, to some extent," King stated. "It is hard to show leniency and maintain legitimacy in the public eye when you’re dealing with a repeat offender, and judges are seeing more of them than they have in the past."

The Washington Post reported in 2015 that the U.S. jails people at a higher rate than any other country.

The newspaper cited the Council of Europe Annual Penal Statistics report for 2013 that found Europe's median prison population rate was 133.5 inmates per 100,000 people. The U.S. rate was 478 inmates per 100,000 people.

The Washington Post also noted a study done by Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of the Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy at the University of Helsinki, that found general victimization rates were similar in Western Europe and the U.S., but there were far more people imprisoned in the U.S.

The newspaper reported how "get tough" on crime laws passed in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s that may have contributed to more incarcerations. Further, those "get tough" laws were valuable political tools to the upper levels of law enforcement and prosecutors who were voted in by the public.  

Mother Jones reported in 2013 how for-profit companies, such as Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), cash in by operating state-run prisons.

CCA even included a clause in a contract stating that the newly-privatized prisons in question had to be least 90 percent full at all times, regardless of the crime rate.

According to a report by In the Public Interest in 2013, a whopping 41 of 62 private prison company contracts with states required that prisons be between 80 and 100 percent full at all times.

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