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What the NRC’s Watershed Incarceration Report Means for New York State

Watch Videos from the  NRC Report:

- NRC Report: Luncheon Keynote (Lenore Anderson) 
- NRC Report: Closing Remarks (Jeremy Travis/Jules Kroll)  
Interview with President Travis on CUNY TV’s Criminal Justice Matters show

An A-list gathering of scholars, elected officials, criminal justice leaders and others led a thought-provoking discussion on September 4 on the implications for New York State of the April 2014 National Research Council report “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.”

The report was produced by the NRC’s Committee on Law and Justice, chaired by John Jay President Jeremy Travis. To open the daylong conference, Travis presented a summary of the report’s findings, which stemmed from the conclusion that the costs of the current rate of incarceration in the U.S. far outweigh the benefits.

“The United States has gone past the point where the number of people in prison can be justified by any potential social benefits,” said Travis. “A criminal justice system that makes less use of incarceration can better achieve its aims than a harsher, more punitive system. There are common-sense, practical steps we can take to move in this direction.”

Sharply increased rates of incarceration in the United States since 1972 are the result of policy changes, not increased crime rates, Travis pointed out. Furthermore, while the impact of increased incarceration on crime reduction has been small, the social and economic consequences have been far-reaching.

The U.S. prison and jail population of 2.2 million adults is the largest in the world, the report found, and is marked by sharp racial and socioeconomic disparities. “It’s clear that incarceration is now a facet of the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities,” said the committee’s vice chair, sociology Professor Bruce Western of Harvard University. “Prisons are part of a poverty trap, with many paths leading in, but few leading out.”

With Nicholas Turner, executive director of the Vera Institute of Justice, serving as panel moderator, members of the NRC committee offered reactions and comments on the report findings, before fielding questions from the audience.

As the conference turned its attention to the NRC report’s implications for New York State, the discussion was spearheaded by a panel that included leaders of the New York State Assembly and Senate; members of the New York State Permanent Commission on Sentencing, including the commission’s co-chair, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.; and Rossana Rosado, Distinguished Lecturer at John Jay and chair of the New York State Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration.

“The answer to every felony conviction is not necessarily more jail,” said Vance, adding that New York State has experienced a drop in its overall prison population since its peak in 1998. “The goal for all of us,” he told the audience, “should be reducing the state prison population without sacrificing public safety.

The NRC report, Vance said, offers a reminder that sound criminal justice policy is “not about being tough on crime, but smart.”

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