Incarceration                             a primer

Americans have always prized individual liberty. Sometime around 1980, they fell in love with its opposite: incarceration. Thirty years on, the infatuation continues.


Locking people up has long been part of the criminal-justice landscape. But by the end of the 1970s, many Americans, frightened by rising crime rates, decided that too many lawbreakers were getting off too easy. The answer? More punishment. Between 1980 and 2000, America's prison population increased by 500% as the prison population soared by more than one million. Hundreds of new prisons were built at a cost of billions of dollars. Internationally, America became the undisputed imprisonment champion of the world, and still reigns by a wide margin. The U.S. incarcerates the largest number of people of any nation, and at a rate four times the world average. Nor does American incarceration appear to be an equal-opportunity option:  African Americans are over six times as likely to be incarcerated as Whites; Latinos are over twice as likely.


At this moment, today, well over 2 million Americans are locked up in jail or prison. If one takes a broader view and counts up all the adult offenders who are formally under the jurisdiction of the justice system—i.e., have been placed in jail or prison or on probation or parole—the total rises to 7.2  million. About 1 in every 32 men and women.

Arizonans have taken to incarceration even more vigorously than most Americans. From 1979 to 2009, the state's total population rose by 150%; its prison population grew by 1,062%. Arizona's incarceration rate consistently ranks among the top 10 states. The current cost of incarcerating Arizona's more than 40,000 inmates is approaching $1 billion annually, or about 11% of total state appropriations for 2010, a budget year in which almost every major sector faces painful cuts. Among major state agencies, in fact, only one faces relatively few cuts: the Department of Corrections. 


How did we get here? Ironically, large-scale imprisonment began in the U.S. as a progressive reform designed to be more humane than many past punishments, as well as to promote penitence (hence: “penitentiary”) and rehabilitation. Throughout history, offenders have been sentenced to a wide variety of ordeals, including death, mutilation, whipping, branding, confiscation of property, exile or transportation, loss of civil status, forced labor and public shaming. In the 1790s, a group of Philadelphians, reacting against these punishments and against conditions in local jails, began to advocate the use of incarceration instead of punishments directed at the offender's body. Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 as the first example of the Pennsylvania System, in which inmates lived and worked separately throughout their entire sentence. The Auburn System, in which inmates slept in separate cells but worked together in silence, also arose during this era. The purpose of the penitentiary was to punish and incapacitate offenders, but also to prompt them to reflect upon their waywardness and pursue a process of self-correction.

This system endured and evolved for a century, as the concept of “penitence” was gradually supplanted by the more secular and scientific-seeming notion of “correction.” Under the “indeterminate” sentencing system, judges were granted wide authority to impose sentences. Once sentenced, an offender's actual time spent in prison could be determined by parole boards, who sought to tailor their decisions to each individual case. Beginning in the 1970s, however, increasing doubts arose about this approach, driven by such factors as a sharp rise in crime, a series of prison riots, sentence disparities and a growing disillusionment with rehabilitation. Encouraged by leaders championing “law and order,” Americans decided to get tough. By 1990, “determinate” sentencing, in which offenders received fixed terms often set by legislators rather than judges, was dominant. By 1991, mandatory minimum sentences and other such requirements existed in 46 states. While a number of states have recently begun dismantling some of these requirements in an effort to reduce swollen prison populations, they remain in effect in most places. Arizona today continues to incarcerate offenders at a higher rate than most other states.


Some Arizonans are also calling for reform. They argue that mass incarceration is simply too expensive, especially as it does not seem to actually “correct” many offenders. Imprisonment is also too harsh a penalty for many lower-level offenders, critics say, especially for the large population of addicts, alcoholics and mentally disturbed individuals who need treatment more than punishment. Alternative punishments are available that are cheaper, less disruptive to families and communities, and just as safe.

Many other Arizonans, including some influential legislators, strongly disagree. They say that alternative punishments cannot provide the crucial elements of "incapacitation" and “deterrence,” and that too many Arizona inmates are in for violent crimes or have violent histories. However expensive and distasteful, they say, incarceration cannot be reduced.


It is difficult to say whether America’s ardor for incarceration will continue at its current level. Prisons’ huge costs have already begun to force state lawmakers—in other states—to consider alternative punishments . And the costs of imprisonment are now being extended as hundreds of thousands of inmates are released from prison annually to try to make it in today’s recession economy. In Arizona alone, more than 1,600 prisoners are released every month; it seems safe to say that few of them are better off than when they entered. Still, it is clear that imprisonment’s future is assured. There will always be individuals too violent or incorrigible to remain in the community, and it is unlikely that locking people up will be judged “cruel and unusual” anytime soon. In any case, it’s worth remembering that , contrary to the popular notion, prison is almost never the end of the story for anyone. It’s merely a station along the way. Nearly all people sent to prison come back out, and after only a few short years. Part of the appeal of imprisonment has doubtless been the sense that we can “send away” offenders to some invisible place and thus remove them permanently from our world. This is not true. Like so many infatuations, it seems, incarceration has fallen short of its promise.  


Bill Hart, Senior Policy Analyst

ASU, Morrison Institute for Public Policy  


Arizona Department of Corrections,

U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics,

Christopher Hartney, U.S. Rates of Incarceration, a Global Perspective, National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2006,


Pew Charitable Trusts,