The size of America’s prison population is driven by the incarceration of violent felons. These felons are held mostly in state prisons, which account for nearly 90% of inmates nationwide. Most prisoners are serving time for violent or weapons offenses, and the vast majority of them—even those incarcerated for nonviolent drug and property offenses—will go on to re-offend, sometimes by committing serious or violent felonies.
Slashing the prison population to match levels in the Western European democracies would require releasing significant numbers of violent and chronic offenders serving time for crimes that most Americans agree should lead to prison. Reducing or eliminating sentences would diminish the incapacitation benefits of incarceration and, given the extremely high rates of recidivism, would expose society to large numbers of people likely to commit more crimes.
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