Travis C. Pratt (2009). Addicted to Incarceration: Corrections Policy and the Politics of Misinformation in the United States. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 153 pp. $26.95
In Addicted to Incarceration, Travis C. Pratt, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Washington State University, takes an evidence-based approach to explore the consequences of what he terms America’s “addiction to incarceration,” which has led to more than a 600% increase in imprisonment with America becoming in recent years the nation that imprisons more of its population than any other nation. In his words,
"On the one hand, we have constructed the biggest prison system on the planet… On the other hand, the United States has also been, and continues to be, the most violent industrialized nation in the world …. It is apparent, therefore, that our willingness to lock-up such a large proportion of the American citizenry has failed to result in a corresponding increase in public safety" (pp. 3-4).
If locking up a greater proportion of our population than has any other nation in history hasn't done anything to reduce crime, then why has it occurred? One answer that has appeal for many of us is that of politicians preying on fear of crime in order to get elected, as exemplified by Nixon's successful "Southern Strategy" and his and Reagan's "War on Drugs". But Dr. Pratt gives policymakers the benefit of the doubt, suggesting that it is largely a matter of misinformation. It is his view that, "this growth in our correctional system has been aided by policy makers’ use of faulty information about (1) crime, (2), the desires of the American public, and (3) the efficacy of incarceration as a crime control strategy"(p. 26).
He points out, for instance, that much of what policymakers believe about crime is simply not true. One might point to examples such as the belief that there is a crime wave in America, an exaggerated view of the risk of being a victim of crime, the belief that drug use causes crime, the belief that petty offenders mature into violent predators, or the belief that persistent offenders can be identified at some early stage in their careers
The effectiveness of imprisonment and the threat of long prison sentences is another area in which policymakers are grossly misinformed. As he points out, "ample evidence exists demonstrating the multiple ways in which the experience of incarceration can be criminogenic for offenders" (p. 84). Furthermore, these policies of more and longer imprisonment "end up perpetuating the cycle of economic deprivation and racial inequality in what are already at-risk communities" (p. 92). Inarguably, they have not made America safer because crime rates have remained essentially stable despite the $60 billion per year prison binge.
Prof. Pratt also points out that, contrary to what the policymakers often claim, increased imprisonment has not been targeted on violent offenders simply because we have always targeted them. Instead, it has necessarily targeted nonviolent offenders because, as he writes, ‘‘as prison space expands, who are we going to fill prison cells with if we are already locking up serious violent offenders?’’ (p. 38). We have been filling those new cells with youthful offenders, first time offenders, and the mentally ill, all of whom previously would have been put on probation -- which been consistently shown to be more effective in reducing further offenses than imprisonment. Imprisonment of women, in particular, has increased by over 2,000% with most of those imprisoned being nonviolent offenders and many being the wives and girlfriends of drug dealers arrested because of the presence of drugs in the home they shared with their spouse or lover.
Dr. Pratt's book offers a detailed, systematic review of the empirical research on crime and imprisonment. The reference list at the end of the book is 25 pages long -- longer than any of the book’s chapters. This book would be an excellent introduction to the issues and an excellent textbook for criminal justice courses.