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After decades of stability from the 1920s to the early 1970s, the rate of incarceration in the United States more than quadrupled in the past four decades. The Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration in the United States was established under the auspices of the National Research Council, supported by the National Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, to review evidence on the causes and consequences of these high incarceration rates and the implications of this evidence for public policy.

Our work encompassed research on, and analyses of, the proximate causes of the dramatic rise in the prison population and the societal dynamics that supported those proximate causes. Our analysis reviewed evidence of the effects of high rates of incarceration on public safety as well as those in prison, their families, and the communities from which these men and women originate and to which they return. We also examined the effects on U.S. society.

After assessing the evidence, the committee found that the normative principles that both limit and justify the use of incarceration as a response to crime were a necessary element of the analytical process. Public policy on the appropriate use of prison is not determined solely by weighing evidence of costs and benefits. Rather, a combination of empirical findings and explicit normative commitments is required. Issues regarding criminal punishment necessarily involve ideas about justice, fairness, and just deserts. Accordingly, this report includes a review of established principles of jurisprudence and governance that have historically guided society’s use of incarceration.

Finally, we considered the practical implications of our conclusions for public policy and for research.


This book was originally published by the National Academies Press, and is available at



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