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Stabilization Of Prison Population 
May Be Deceptive

An News Analysis By Terence T. Gorski
GORSKI-CENAPS Web Publications
www.tgorski.com
Published On: June 9, 2001          Updated On: April 13, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Terry Gorski and other members of the GORSKI-CENAPS Team are Available To Train & Consult On Areas Related To Addiction & Crime
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After three decades of explosive growth, the nation's prisoner population may have begun to stabilize.  At first I was excited to read the article by David Firestone in the New York Times that announced this leveling of of the prison population.  As I read the article, however,  it became clear that it's not time to start celebrating.  The reason is simple - this nation is using two diametrically opposed approaches to drug crime.  One approach is driving up the prisoner population, the other is driving it down.  As a result they tend to cancel each other out.  These two approaches are:

·  The War on Drugs: The war on drugs, backed up by "get tough" sentencing, increases the prisoner population with relatively little affect on drug availability, drug abuse, or related crime.

·  Public Health Addiction Policy:  Public health addiction policy, supported by behind the bars and community-based treatment initiatives, decreases the prisoner population while decreasing drug abuse and related crime and bringing large numbers of drug offenders back into productive citizenship.

The average elected official, public citizen, or news journalist doesn't recognize this fact.  As a result politicians who preach a get tough on drugs and crime rhetoric are mistakenly leading people to believe that it is the their get tough policies that are causing the drops in crime when, in fact, the opposite is true.  Get tough policies increase prisoner population without significantly affecting crime rate.  

The programs that lower both crime rate and prisoner population are those based upon Public Health Drug &n Crime Policies.  These programs work because they keep non-violent drug offenders and early career criminals out of prison by diverting them into carefully monitored court programs that coordinate treatment and enforcement efforts.  These policies also work because they focus on reducing criminal recidivism by providing treatment behind the bars that includes incentives to participate in pre-release and community transition programs that lower drug relapse and recidivism.

Defining the Prisoner Population

There are three areas of prisoner population that combine to determine the total number of prisoners.  All play an important role in the overall growth or decline of the prisoner population.  These three areas are:  

·        State Prisons:  The primary decline in prisoner population has occurred in the State prisons which represent about 60 percent of all people incarcerated in the United States.  (It's important to remember that some states had sharp declines in offender populations, while others held steady or actually increased.  We need to look at each state independently.) 

·        Jails:  Jails, usually hold prisoners  for a year or less and represent about 32 percent of those incarcerated.  The growth in the number of jail inmates has held steady in 1999 and 2000.  

·        Federal Prisons:  The federal prison system grew by 11 percent last year, mostly due to mandatory drug sentencing and the federal takeover of prisoners from the District of Columbia. 

Programs That Increased Prisoner Population

There were a number of programs instituted to get tough on crime that increased prisoner population without affecting the crime rate.  Most of these "get tough" initiatives were directed at drug offenders.  The "get tough" drug laws ...

·  arrested larger numbers of non-violent drug offenders, 

·  sentenced higher percentages of drug offenders to hard prison time, 

·  imposed longer minimum sentences, 

·  eliminated the possibility of parole which forced more inmates to serve their full sentences, and 

·  released larger numbers of offenders with no community monitoring and no incentive to seek treatment to help them transition back into the community

These approaches were also applied to nonviolent criminals resulting in an increasing percentage of people serving time behind the bars for nonviolent offenses.  These get tough laws are the major force that caused the explosion in the prisoner population since 1980.

As a result of these approaches, the number of state prisoners nationwide grew by 75 percent between 1990 and 2000 (from 708,393 to 1,242,962).  The number of local jail beds almost doubled during the 1990's, to 677,000.  This growth corresponded to the rise in drug arrests, more vigilant policing and harsher sentences.  

Crime Rate Not Affected By Get Tough Policies

The drop in crime was not directly related to the increased sentencing; a variety of studies have shown no relationship between the length of sentencing in a state and its crime rate. Rather, criminologists say, many of the tough sentences imposed earlier in the decade began to run their course at the same time as the crime rate continued to decline.

What Is Lowering The Prisoner Population

The prisoner population is being lowered by a combination of factors:

1.    Declining Crime Rates:  One of the most important reasons for the slowing growth of the prisoner population, is  the decline in crime rates that began in the mid-1990's.  If the declining crime rate were the only variable affecting the size of the prisoner population, it  would have stabilized and started to decline many years ago.

2.    Alcohol, Drug, & Crime Prevention Programs:  Prevention programs do work when they focus upon people at high risk of crime.  The primary components in effective crime reduction programs are alcohol and drug treatment, job training, education, and alternative activities within a community that give high risk people positive social outlets and access to benefits of productive citizenship.

3.    Alternative Sentencing Projects: Many states began experimenting with alternative sentencing that lowered the number of prisoners by using special drug courts and community-based diversionary programs to keep non-violent drug offenders out of prison.  they also used special diversion programs for people with mental health problems and for young people early in the criminal career cycle who committed non-violent crimes.

4.    Intensive Behind The Bars Treatment Programs:  Many states noticed that nearly half of all new prisoners were parole violators who had relapsed back into drug use.  Some states responded by expanding the number of intensive drug treatment programs behind the bars, requiring six months of treatment behind the bars and using transition programs to keep them in treatment under close supervision upon their return to the community.  

5.    Programs To Lower Recidivism:  Many states focused upon reducing recidivism by more closely supervising convicts on parole, intensifying probationary supervision, and linking correctional supervision with high accountability drug treatment programs for drug offenders.  This is important because more than half of all prisoners are probation or parole violators who committed new crimes.

Effects of Reducing Prisoner Population

If the prison population continues to stabilize or diminish, it could have a substantial economic benefit to states and localities. State prisoners now cost an average of $23,000 a year to house, so the 65,810 prisoners added between 1998 and 1999 increased the nation's prison expenditures by about $1.5 billion. By contrast, the following year, only 18,558 prisoners were added, a difference of more than $1 billion.

Obstacles To Reducing Prisoner Population

The biggest obstacle to reducing the prisoner population is the Prison Industrial Complex which is a group of inter-related industries that benefit from the growing prisoner population and the explosive prisons and prison-related equipment.  The more profitable businesses that are part of this prison industrial complex financially support the campaigns of get tough politicians who pass the laws needed to assure continued growth in the prisoner population

Have no doubts about it, prison-building remains popular with many politicians and voters.  New prisons often provide a boost to rural economies. Few people in the field expect building to stop.  And since crime is a major political issue, and the political agenda and popular media is still heavily weighted towards punishment, and many states and the federal government may continue to be willing to spend more money on prison construction than on new schools.

Also remember that little has been done to change the harshly punitive laws and sentencing requirements that caused the initial explosion in prisoner population.  Unless this problem is systematically addressed through a comprehensive policy review, the current stabilization in prisoner population could reflect a short blip in an ever growing tendency to imprison Americans for addiction and other minor crimes. 

Below is the New York Times Article that prompted me to write this news analysis.

Read More About The Prison Industrial Complex

Addiction & Criminal Careers
Beyond Forced Psychiatry
California Three-Strikes Law Not Cutting Crime
Coercive Treatment
Crowded Jails Create Crisis For Prisons in Alabama
Drug War & The Prison Industrial Complex
Florida - Time Served In Prison 1979 -1999
Florida Cutbacks Reduce Offender Drug Treatment
Inmate Rehabilitation Returns as Prison Goal
Male Guards in Women's Prisons
Marketing To Inmates  Behind The Bars
One in 32 American Adults Are in the Corrections System
Orange County Florida Jail Allows Methadone After Two Deaths
PHAP - Public Health Addiction Policy
PICS In The Pews - 12-12-02
PICS Reading Assignment 02 - Colorado's ADX Supermax Prison 010831.htm
PICS Reading Assignment 03 - Supermax Red Onion State Prison Virginia
Prison Industrial Complex
Problems On Rikers Island
Stabilization Of Prison Population May Be Deceptive
States Reconsider Crime Policies
Supreme Court Upholds Three Strikes Legislation
The Ex-Con Racket - The Problem of Returning Inmates
Treatment of Women Prisoners
Use Of Electronic Stun Devices

Prison Population in U.S. Is Leveling Off

By DAVID FIRESTONE
June 9, 2001 
New York Times

ATLANTA, June 8 — After growing explosively for three decades, the nation's prison population has begun to stabilize, according to new government figures.

For the first time in years, the overcrowding that has plagued state prisons and local jails alike is beginning to ease, as a result of falling crime rates and a decade of new construction.

Through the middle of last year, the number of state prisoners grew by only 1.5 percent, the lowest annual increase in 29 years, according to figures recently compiled by the United States Department of Justice. In the three most populous states, the number of prisoners in California and New York actually fell last year, and the number in Texas grew by only half of 1 percent.

Nine other states — including New Jersey — also reported a decline, the largest number of states to do so in two decades. Connecticut's prison population grew 1.4 percent.

Government officials and other experts in the field say there are several reasons for the slowing growth, but the most important is that the prison system is finally experiencing the benefits of the decline in crime rates that began in the mid-1990's.

Before the crime rates fell, many states had begun toughening their criminal justice systems, imposing longer minimum sentences for a wider spectrum of crimes and ending parole. The average sentence increased by 13 percent during the 90's, and with more prisoners staying behind bars longer, it took several years for the drop in crime to be reflected in the prison population numbers.

"The reason we saw those increasing numbers every year was because of the sentencing reforms undertaken by so many states," said Allen J. Beck, the chief of corrections statistics for the Justice Department, who compiled the new figures. "In the 90's, there was a much greater chance that violent offenders would be incarcerated, and would stay longer. But those reforms had their effect, and now we're finally starting to see the prison population stabilize."

The drop in crime was not directly related to the increased sentencing; a variety of studies have shown no relationship between the length of sentencing in a state and its crime rate. Rather, criminologists say, many of the tough sentences imposed earlier in the decade began to run their course at the same time as the crime rate continued to decline.

During that same period, many states with corrections systems that became overwhelmed by the new prisoners also began experimenting with alternative sentencing — special drug courts and diversionary programs for drug users that are starting to have an effect on reducing inmate populations. By more closely supervising convicts on parole, states have kept many of them from returning.

"Forty percent of the people walking through our prison doors were parole violators, mostly who had relapsed into drug use," said Martin F. Horn, who was the secretary of corrections in Pennsylvania for six years until earlier this year.

"So we started a system that put them in an intensive treatment program inside prison for six months, then put them back on the street under close supervision, Mr. Horn said. "Now our prison population has been flat for three years, which we hadn't seen since before 1980."

In addition to California, New York and New Jersey, the other states that reported declines in prisoners were Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

State prisoners represent about 60 percent of all people incarcerated in the United States. The growth in the number of jail inmates — usually people held for a year or less, representing 32 percent of those incarcerated — has also been flat in the last two years, which is considered a more direct reflection of the drop in crime.

"Jails are the most immediate beneficiary of the crime decline, because their sentences are shorter," said Alfred Blumstein, a professor of criminology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who studies crime statistics. "Typically, at least half the people in jail are awaiting trial, and as the crime rates declined, trials can occur faster."

But the trend has not held true in the federal prison system, which grew by 11 percent last year, mostly due to mandatory drug sentencing and the federal takeover of prisoners from the District of Columbia. Federal prisons remain considerably more crowded, on average, than state prisons or local jails.

One reason for that is the boom in prison and local jail construction during the 1980's and 90's, which doubled the number of state prisons, though it was not matched at the federal level. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of state prisoners nationwide grew by 75 percent, to 1,242,962 from 708,393, corresponding to the rise in drug arrests, more vigilant policing and harsher sentences.

But prison construction in most states has kept pace and often exceeded the increase in prisoners, even though most prisons remain overcrowded. Justice Department figures show that the state prisons were operating at 115 percent of capacity in 1990, and at 109 percent of capacity in 1999, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Similarly, the number of local jail beds almost doubled during the 1990's, to 677,000. In 1990, jails were operating at 104 percent of capacity, but last year, that number dropped to 92 percent. Mr. Beck said that in the year ending last June, more jail beds were added than jail inmates.

Many states continue to make headlines because of overcrowded prisons and jails, mostly in cases where the state has not built new prisons as fast as elsewhere. New Jersey has the most crowded prison system, according to the Justice Department, at 143 percent of its capacity, and Illinois and Wisconsin are only a few percentage points behind. Other states, including Alabama, have allowed local jails to hold their excess prisoners, resulting in lawsuits over jail conditions and court orders to expand state capacity.

But nationally the crowding is diminishing, and experts predict it will become a much less serious problem in the coming decade as the number of prisoners stabilizes and prisons now under construction open. Several states added so many beds that they have an excess of prison capacity, and Texas and Virginia have made a lucrative business out of leasing their spare prison beds to more crowded states.

Ten percent of the inmates in Virginia's prisons are from out of state, and the state expects to receive more than $80 million this year for housing them. Several prisoners from Connecticut and New Mexico who were housed at Virginia's newest "supermax" prisons have filed lawsuits complaining about abusive conditions and racial discrimination at the new buildings, which restrict the movement of prisoners more sharply than in most prisons.

Marc Mauer, deputy director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that supports prisoners' rights, said he expected that questions regarding treatment of prisoners at new institutions would eventually overtake crowding as the principal concern of advocates.

"Crowding only tells you whether there are enough beds for all the inmates," Mr. Mauer said. "It doesn't tell you how many vocational or treatment programs there are, or what life is like inside the prisons 24 hours a day."

If the prison population continues to stabilize or diminish, it could have a substantial economic benefit to states and localities. State prisoners now cost an average of $23,000 a year to house, so the 65,810 prisoners added between 1998 and 1999 increased the nation's prison expenditures by about $1.5 billion. By contrast, the following year, only 18,558 prisoners were added, a difference of more than $1 billion.

But prison-building remains popular with many politicians and voters, and new prisons often provide a boost to rural economies. Few people in the field expect building to stop.

"We're a long way from the point where crime is not a major political issue," said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. "The political agenda is still heavily weighted towards punishment, and many states are much more willing to spend money on prison construction than on new schools."

This news analysis is copyrighted by Terence To Gorski.  Permission is given to reproduce it if the following conditions are met:  (1) The authorship of the article is properly referenced and the internet address is given;  (2) All references to the following three websites are retained when the article is reproduced - www.tgorski.com, www.cenaps.com, www.relapse.org, www.relapse.net; (3) If the article is published on a website a reciprocal link to the four websites listed under point two is provided on the website publishing the article.
 

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