Expert Commentary

Myths and realities of correctional severity: Evidence from the National Corrections Reporting Program

2011 study from Fordham Law School on the influences fueling prison population growth in the United States since 1980.

Approximately 1.6 million people — nearly 1 out of every 130 Americans and about 1 out of every 20 black men — are currently incarcerated at the federal or state level in the United States. The incarceration rate has more than quadrupled since 1970. Although many believe that this increase can be traced to stricter sentencing guidelines enacted in the 1980s and 1990s, a close analysis of the data does not entirely support this, according to a 2011 study by a scholar at the Fordham University School of Law.

Published in the American Law and Economics Review, “The Myths and Realities of Correctional Severity: Evidence from the National Corrections Reporting Program on Sentencing Practices” analyzes National Corrections Reporting Program data from 11 states from 1983 to 2002 (approximately 30% of the prison population) to examine the effects of both prison and prisoner release rates on the elevated incarceration rate.

Key findings include:

  • Despite tougher sentencing laws adopted in recent years, the median prison time served is one to two years: “Despite the plethora of tough-on-crime sentencing laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s … time that is actually served does not appear to be particularly long for the typical inmate.”
  •  “What appears to be a decrease in time served is partially the result of (1) locking up more and more minor offenders — who previously would not have been incarcerated at all — for very short periods and (2) locking up more severe offenders for longer.”
  • Certain types of inmates (such as non-violent offenders) are more likely to be released early from prison, while others (such as young black males) tend to serve longer sentences than similar offenders with different demographic/racial profiles. Those more likely to be released during any given time period include women and older detainees; those less like to be released include violent offenders and Hispanics.

“It is undoubtedly clear that the United States has become more punitive over the past thirty years,” the author states, “but rarely with respect to sentence length actually served. It is our willingness to incarcerate in the first place, not to keep people in prison once admitted, that appears to have been the fundamental engine of prison growth since the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

Tags: African-American, Hispanic, Latino, crime, prisons, race

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