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Prisons provide another example of a field in which Canadians can point to our neighbours to the south and feel superior, even when in reality we may have little that should make us proud.  For decades now, the U.S. has been an outlier in imprisoning more people, under worse conditions, than any other developed country, including vastly more proportionately than does Canada.  But things appear to be changing, at least to some degree.

After more than twenty years of steadily increasing numbers of people in jail, the United States has seen major reductions in the last few years.  These efforts have been fuelled by the gigantic expense of the system, which now costs more than $80 billion per year in operating costs, and much more than that – perhaps as much as $1 trillion per year – if one considers all costs involved.  Traditional liberal and left-wing prisoner reformers, and those concerned with the massive racial imbalances in the US justice and prison systems, have been joined by groups on the political right, who find the present situation to be too expensive and not at all efficient.  There are now quite a few conservative organizations in the U.S. that also embrace reform of the criminal justice system – for example the Koch brothers, or ‘Right on Crime’.

Two recent reports from the Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the organizations that has been supporting criminal justicee and prison reform for a long-time, show how much has been accomplished, but also how much remains to be done.

Fewer people are being jailed while crime rate continues to fall

First, the number of people in prison has declined significantly in many states, while the crime rate has also declined in almost all those states.  Overall, 11% fewer people are in prison than was the case in 2008, though the US rate remains dramatically higher than any other similar country.  The imprisonment rate of black adults has fallen by nearly 30%, though it is still highly disproportionate.  Meanwhile, the overall crime rate in the United States has fallen by more than half since 1991.  36 states reduced their imprisonment rates in the last ten years, 20 of them by more than 15%.  Only one of these 36 states – Alaska – had an increase in crime over that time.  In Massachusetts the jail population fell by 26% and crime by 32%; in New York the numbers were 17% and 20%, and in Texas 16% and 29%.  These are remarkable changes, and certainly suggest that putting more people in prison has little to do with greater public safety.

Fewer people going back to jail

The second important development reported by Pew is that the recidivism rate – the proportion of people who end up going back to jail – has also dropped significantly in the U.S.  The share of people who returned to a state prison within three years of being released—one common measure of recidivism—dropped by nearly a quarter between 2005 and 2012, from 48% to 37%.  Longer-term recidivism rates also fell.  (The great bulk of recidivism occurs in the first two years; the rate does not increase very much after that.)  The report attributes this drop largely to evidence-based re-entry policies and programs that help former prisoners rebuild their lives.  Some states using such practices, such as Georgia or Michigan, showed much larger drops in recidivism.  “Reducing recidivism improves public safety, reduces taxpayer spending on prisons, and helps formerly incarcerated people successfully resume family and community responsibilities”, concludes the report.


Canada, like many other countries, does not report a national recidivism rate, in large part because of we maintain two separate jail systems (federal and provincial) that do not collect data in the same way.  Canada’s jail population has not fallen and remains high especially in comparison to big drops in crime rates over recent years.  Canada’s imprisonment rate is high compared to many European countries but much lower than that in the US, which jails about 6 times as high a proportion of its population.