Decarcerating: Strategies for Reducing the Prison Population

Philip Kotler
9 min readMar 8, 2023

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Philip Kotler

The U.S. has the largest prison population in the world per 100,000 inhabitants! I would argue that too many persons are imprisoned and steps should be taken to release many of them to lead a more normal life. The movement to reduce the prison population in a humane way is called decarceration, as opposed to incarceration.

Most nations keep statistics on the number of persons making up their correctional population. The correctional population consists of two groups. One group is the number of adults supervised in the community on probation or parole. The other group is the number of adults under the jurisdiction of state or federal prisons or in the custody of local jails.

The total adult (18 or older) correctional population in the U.S. in 2019 was 6,343,300, of which 4,357,700 were under correctional supervision (3,492,400 under probation and 878,900 under parole). The incarcerated population consisted of 2,086,000 (with 1,215,800 in prison and 734,500 in local jails).

World Prison Population

A shocking number of persons are in prison around the world. According to World Prison Population, there are more than 11.5 million prisoners worldwide (2021).

The size of the prison population varies greatly in different countries. Table 1 shows the number of prisoners in some major countries.

Top 10 Countries with the Most People in Prison

· United States — 2,068,800

· China — 1,690,000

· Brazil — 811,707

· India — 478,600

· Russia — 471,490

· Thailand — 309,282

· Turkey — 291,198

· Indonesia — 266,259

· Mexico — 220,866

· Iran — 189,000

Since countries differ greatly in size, prison populations need to be ranked by the ­incarceration rate per 100,000 national population in different nations.

Countries ranked by the incarceration rate per 100,000 people in that country.

1. United States — 629

2. Brazil — 381

3. Russia — 326

4. Mexico 169

5. Canada 104

6. China 119

7. Japan 37

8. India 35

Note the following:

1. The U.S. stands with the highest incarceration rate (629), almost double the next largest incarceration rate of Brazil (381).

2. The U.S.’s two neighbors, Mexico (169) and Canada (104), have drastically lower incarceration rates.

3. The largest countries in Asia have relatively low incarceration rates, China (119), Japan (37) and India (35).

What are the Characteristics of U.S. Prisoners?

Let’s look at the composition of incarcerated persons in the U.S.

· At midyear 2021, about 49% of local jail inmates were white, 35% were black, and 14% were Hispanic. Other groups (Native Americans, Alaska Natives, Asians, accounted for only 2% of the total jail population in 2022).

· The system of mass incarceration particularly targets Black people, who are 13 percent of the U.S. population but are 38 percent of the people in jails and prisons (2022). Black prisoners faced more punishment than white ones, leading to loss of privileges, longer stays in solitary confinement and, ultimately, more time behind bars.

· Males account for 90% of the prisoners; female account for 10%. Women have become the fastest-growing segment of the incarcerated population. (May 17, 2021).

· Prisoner ages ran from teenagers to over 65. Over 75% of prisoners were between ages 26–46.

· Drug offenses of 31.7% broke down into Methamphetamine (26.2%), marijuana (25.2%), powder cocaine (20.6%), heroin (10.0%), crack cocaine (9.7%), other (7.6%) as of 2014.

· The main offenses are drugs (31.7%), immigration (29.3%), firearms (10.5%), fraud (10.0%), non-fraud white collar (3.7%), child pornography (2.5%), larceny (1.9%), and other (10.4%). These percentages applied to the year 2014.

How Did the U.S. Reach Such a High Imprisonment Rate?

The U.S. imprisoned population was relatively low until the 1970s. In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse to be “public enemy number one” and began “the War on Drugs.” Drug arrests picked up with increased funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan greatly expanded the drug war and favored criminal punishment over treatment. The U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986 along with “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for different drug offenses. Because many African Americans were involved in crack, it led to a great increase in Black prisoners.

At the same time, crime was increasing and the media gave it front page coverage.

The U.S. prison population increased from 200,000 incarcerated in 1973 to its peak of 2,400,000 in 2009. Fortunately, it went down to 2,086,000 in 2019. The main contributors to this large prison population were the war on drugs, longer sentences, media-driven campaigns about rising crime, and the “get tough on crime” response.

Processes in Managing Crime and Criminals

The existence of prisoners requires understanding the main processes that fill and re-fill our prisons. We distinguish six processes that take place:

1. Crime

2. Arrests

3. Sentencing

4. Incarceration

5. Release

6. Recidivism

1. Crime

Every society experiences some degree of crime ranging from minor crimes (lying, stealing, blackmailing) to major crimes (physical harm and murder). Most societies develop a culture defining good behavior and bad behavior. Children grow up being taught the difference. The culture uses stories and testaments to illustrate good behavior and also defines the punishments that will follow bad behavior.

The society’s very existence depends on most people practicing good behavior. When bad behavior is on the rise, the society uses police and its laws to arrest and imprison offenders until the bad behavior lessens.

The society operates on some assumption about the nature and behavior of mankind. The society’s dominant religion might assume that mankind is bad and sinful, that people are driven by greed and self-interest. Bad behaviors come from individuals strivings to gain money, status, or power. Bad behavior must be prevented or contained by force and punishment.

Some bad behavior comes from impulse or passion at the moment. Other bad behavior come from calculated efforts to improve one’s condition legally or illegally.

Most societies exhibit class differences with some people living a rich and full life and others living deeply deprived lives of poverty and hunger. Those living a deprived life are aware and ashamed of their condition. They will be tempted to take advantage of every opportunity to improve their life. They might steal or threaten others. They might join gangs to increase their share of power.

This suggests that great inequality in access to resources is likely to increase crime coming from the poorer classes. This also suggests that efforts to create a fairer distribution of resources would help reduce the amount of crime.

2. Arrests

Societies develop mechanisms to prevent or arrest persons committing “bad behavior.” The society defines what is legal and the likely punishments that would follow different types of bad behavior. The society develops a police force that has the power to arrest persons committing bad behavior. The society also develops a court system, judges, prisons and parole boards to handle those arrested. Many persons will be held in a pre-trial stage of arrest waiting for a busy court to become available. Those waiting for a trial either post bail or wait in jail.

3. Sentencing

Societies create a judicial system to establish the innocence or guilt of a person charged with an offense. For persons found guilty, the court and jury are to render sentences within a range of severity proportionate to the gravity of offenses, the harms done to crime victims, and the blameworthiness of offenders.

Where persons admit guilt, the judge will follow the sentencing rules that are spelled out for this crime. Sometimes the rules are indeterminate allowing the judge a lot of discretion. The judge might give consideration to possible merits that the offender might have. On the other hand, some judges may take an intense dislike of the offender and set a maximum sentence. When the amount of indeterminancy gets excessive, pressure arises to make sentences more determinant, leaving the judges with less discretion.

The judge might decide on granting probation to the offender who pleads guilty with strict conditions governing his/her whereabouts while under probation. Eventually that person might appear before a parole committee that might further reduce or remove the conditions.

In the great majority of cases, the offender will be incarcerated. The judge decides or recommends which jail or prison the offender goes to.

4. Incarceration

The real question is how offenders are treated during incarceration. Some prisons are set up to treat the offenders with retribution and punishment. The prison hires tough guards who use their power to punish prisoners and these prisons offer few benefits of education or health. Other prisons are set up to treat prisoners with rehabilitation and education. The prison takes a humane view of prisoners and wants to give them every opportunity to study and prepare for a better life and job after leaving prison. Many prisons offer both treatments by running separate areas of the prison for hardened criminals and another area for first offenders or light offenders.

A strong case can be made for treating prisoners more humanely. They are more likely to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society. There is likely to be less recidivism. There is likely to be less violence of prisoners toward each other and towards prison staff. By providing education, healthcare, and other basic needs, prisoners are likely to develop a sense of self-worth and confidence, making it easier to find jobs and housing upon release. Countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland and Germany prioritize rehabilitation over punishment and provide education, healthcare, and other basic needs and experience much less recidivism.

5. Release

Prisoners are released when their sentence is over. Some may be released earlier on probation or parole on the grounds of good behavior. Those who are released when their sentence is over may be released with no restrictive conditions; others may be released with specific corrective supervision.

The real question is where do prisoners go when released. The lucky ones return to their family or friends. Others might be become homeless or rejoin gangs. As job applicants, ex-convicts will be questioned about whether they have a criminal record. If yes, most employees won’t offer a job. Fortunately, there are some kinds of businesses when individual firms are ready to accept persons with a criminal record. Examples include restaurants, beauty shops, small factories and construction companies. Even here, former prisoners normally are paid less than their peers with similar educational backgrounds. The John Howard Association helps prisoners get more justice while in prison and out of prison.

6. Recidivism

Unfortunately, many released offenders may not have families or friends and they return to gangs or behaviors similar to their criminal past. Recidivism rates in the U.S. are some of the highest in the world. Almost 44% of criminals released returning to prison within their first year out. More than eight out of every 10 youth offenders are arrested again within five years of release 2022. Native Americans and Alaska Natives face the highest levels of recidivism at 79% but are 1% of the total prison population. Black prisoners have the second-highest recidivism rate, at 74% over five years, and are about 40% of total prisoners. To handle offenders who recidivate several times, California passed the “three strikes law” in 1994 that imposed a 25 year life sentence on multiple recidivists.

Why is the recidivism rate so high in the U.S.? Causes include social interactions during incarceration, depression, lack of employment and economic opportunity, and a failure to reduce the prisoner’s criminal tendencies during imprisonment.

What can be done to decarcerate, i.e., to reduce the number of persons in prisons?

My reason to comment on the “crime-arrest-sentencing-incarcerate-release-recidivism” cycle is to identify areas where better practice can reduce the number of persons in prison.

1. We need more policies to reduce the conditions that lead to more crime. We need to improve the educational system so more people find satisfying jobs and compensation. We need to reduce the amount of poverty and penury that drives people into crime.

2. Police need to be better trained in when to arrest and how to treat the assumed offenders in jailing them.

3. Judges must be given clearer guidelines on just sentencing.

4. Offenders must receive better treatment in prison on a humane rehabilitation model.

5. Offenders need to be helped upon release to return to normal life and job opportunities.

6. Offenders who return to crime frequently need longer sentences.

All these better practices will lead to a reduction in the number of persons going to jail or returning to jail.

Why is it so important to reduce the prison population? First, many persons were convicted for drug possesion with long sentences and there is a new attitude favoring reducing their sentences or releasing them. Second, U.S. prisons are terribly overcrowded which makes the prison experience more exhausting, hardening, and health-injuring. Third, many prison budgets are being cut for food and health services, making prison conditions more severe. Fourth, over 8% of prisons are privately owned and engage lobbyists to advocate longer sentences to keep these prisons profitable.

All said, there is a growing U.S. movement favoring decarcerating. Unfortunately, the Republican party favors more toughness on crime and criminals. The Democratic party hesitates to favor less toughness because it might lose a lot of votes. The political result is to postpone progress in reducing the size of the prison population.

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Philip Kotler

Philip Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (emeritus)