Big Question: Do prisons create more criminals?

Many of today's correctional facilities face challenges ranging from overcrowding to creating rehabilitation programs that work as advertised. Perhaps what we're really asking is: Does the modern prison system work? Curiosity contributor Bambi Turner tackled the question.

Both violent and property crime declined significantly in the U.S. between 1987 and 2007, but the number of prisoners tripled: By 2011, more than one out of every 100 adults was confined to jail or prison [sources: de Pugy, Pew Center on the States]. If crime prevention and justice are the primary goals, then prisons for now are quite effective. But if one takes a longer view, it's also clear that the current system is unsustainable.

Corrections cost the U.S. more than $50 billion each year. The majority of this money pays for prisons [source: Pew Center on the States]. Even with this high level of spending, prison overcrowding is a common concern, particularly at the state level [source: Moore].

Some jurisdictions have made rehabilitation a primary goal. In 2007, Texas invested in drug treatment programs and separate drug courts, saving the state more than $200 million in two years [source: Pew Center on the States]. Other states have focused on helping inmates transition from prison to the real world. States like Oregon and Michigan that have invested heavily in prisoner transition programs have seen recidivism rates fall well below the national average. [source: Pew Center on the States].

Privatization, shifting control of prisons from the government to private businesses, is a popular yet controversial strategy to improve the system. Proponents tout increased efficiencies and savings, but a study by the Arizona Department of Corrections found that private prisons actually cost up to $1,600 more per inmate each year [source: Oppel].

Dr. Andrew Weil, in this accompanying video, addresses a question closely related to today's prison system issues: whether drugs will be decriminalized.

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