Jails and prisons overflowing: staggering


This is going to be an unusual commentary for me.  First I will reproduce an editorial from the Denver Post that was sent to me.  This will be followed by my comments.


May 03, 2005


U.S. jails, prisons overflowing

The figure is nothing short of staggering: 2.1 million U.S. residents - one in every 138 - locked up as of mid-2004. That's nearly as many people as live in the entire Denver metro area.

The tally is 700,000 more than in 1990, and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 900 more prisoners are added weekly, even as crime rates fall. The U.S. incarceration rate of 726 per 100,000 population is in a different league than most other nations. Only Russia, with 606 per 100,000, for a total of 865,000 prisoners, is close to the U.S. among major industrial nations. In Britain, it's 142 per 100,000, China 118, France 91 and Japan 58.

It isn't cheap, either. Prisons cost U.S. taxpayers about $49 billion a year. Get-tough policies from the 1980s and early 1990s, such as mandatory drug sentences and "three-strikes" life terms, have filled U.S. prisons and jails. Denverites vote today on a $378 million jail and court complex.

Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told The Associated Press he favors alternative programs, such as drug treatment and help for the mentally ill, to reduce the numbers of offenders incarcerated for non-violent crimes and low-level drug offenses.

Local political leaders are grappling with alternatives to jail crowding. Denver already spends about $14.6 million a year on sentencing alternatives and diversion programs and still needs more jail space.

Denver pays about $52.75 a day, or $19,334 a year, to confine one person. Electronic monitoring, including a set-up cost of $75, costs only $18 a day, or $6,645 yearly. The Colorado Department of Corrections pays $70 a day, or $25,550 a year, for each inmate in a state prison and $49 a day, or $17,885 a year, for those in contract prisons.

"The conventional wisdom seems to be to put the money in at the front end," said Joe Sandoval, professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State College. "Give folks an opportunity to earn a living honestly and to become educated and to have a stake in American society. You have to (do that) at an early age, and that way the chances of aberrant behavior later on will decrease."

That's "extremely difficult" to do, Sandoval said, and so is getting adequate funding for such programs.

In Colorado, only one in four drug offenders is sentenced to prison, said DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan. "By the time they hit the Department of Corrections, those individuals have earned their way there." It's also a mistake to assume all drug offenders are non-violent, she said.

Educational, vocational, drug, alcohol, anger management and mental health programs are "only part of the answer," Morgan said. "Early intervention ... would be critical."

The first priority, according to Morgan, is public safety. We agree.

But legislators should revisit sentencing and drug laws. Should some aspects of drug use be approached as health problems rather than crimes? Is it wise to spend $1.25 million to keep a 25-year-old stickup artist locked up until he turns 75? Changing antisocial behavior is a worthier, albeit more difficult, goal.




My response:


Nothing short of staggering?  Where has everyone been on this issue?  It is not at all “staggering” for those of us who have kept up with this subject over the past 30 years.  I recall writing about this subject about 25 years ago, noting that the prison population has reached an “all-time high” with 200,000 and an incarceration rate of about 100.  Now we have 2.1 million in jails and prisons and a rate of over 700.  Why should this surprise us, given the “get tough” mentality that has taken over the country in the past 20 years or so? 


It is important to note in this context the fact that throughout all these years both democrats and republicans have followed the “law and order” mentality in lock-step, with a few isolated exceptions to be sure.  The drug war continues to create havoc and targets mostly minorities, despite the fact that research dating back more than 20 years has noted that there are no significant differences in illegal drug use according to race and in fact some surveys have found that whites are most likely to use such drugs.  The incarceration rate for blacks is about 5 times more than for whites and for drugs the difference is even greater.  This obvious racial bias has been brought to the attention of everyone in Congress, every President, and legislative body in every state time and time again, yet they do nothing about it.  This failure to act says a lot and lends support to the argument that I and other criminologists (such as Michael Tonry) that the drug laws have intentionally targeted minorities.  And look at women, the fastest rising population of prisoners in the world.  Let’s not forget something that is rarely mentioned: all the children who have parents in prison or jail, which numbers at least 2 million.  In fact, evidence suggests that since there are more than 6 million somewhere within the criminal justice system on any given day (prison, jail, probation, parole) what we have is probably around 6 million children witnessing one or more parents (not to mention siblings) getting arrested.  Guess what factor is one of the leading predictors of chronic delinquency? A parent in jail or prison!  Guess what this means down the road in later years for these kids?  Not too much that is positive. I almost forgot something else that is rarely discussed: what happens to the children when a parent is sent to prison?  Who takes care of them?  Usually it is either a grandparent or the state.  This is money spent that is almost never added to the already expensive toll of maintaining all these jails and prisons.


The statement below by Professor Sandoval is of course a truism, but guess what?  This has been said thousands of times by criminologists for around 100 years and no one listens!  Note the statement by Malcolm Young, which is another truism, but who among our political leaders is listening, since this has also been said before.  The writer of this editorial says local folks are “grappling with alternatives to jail crowding.”  Really?  Their solution is most often to build more jail space and they apparently don’t care about the money.  In fact, when in doubt about the concerns of those in power, always “follow the money” and it will lead you to some answers.  It is nice to offer alternatives like electronic monitoring and it does save money, but it is merely a band-aid.  We have too many people in jails and prisons for two reasons:  too many are going in the front end and too many are staying too long once they get in.  Then too, take a look at the parole system, which seems to be set up to more or less “recycle prisoners” (as several studies have found).


In the editorial below it is stated that the “first priority is public safety.”  Well, I don’t think this is true.  If they were really concerned about public safety you would see billions of dollars spent on prevention and the elimination of the drug war and other needed changes.  No, I don’t really think these folks care about public safety.  Rather, they care about their own careers.  And don’t forget all the money that is made from building and maintaining jails and prisons.  Would anyone care to guess how many businesses profit from having prisoners?  Go to a web site called corrections.com for part of the answer and do a Google search by typing in “Prison Industrial Complex.”


The DOC spokesperson states that “By the time they hit the Department of Corrections, those individuals have earned their way there."  Well, this begs the question of how this happened.  Did all those minorities “earn” their way into prison, after being targeted by our “drug warriors”?  And then what about all those who “earned” their way back in after being on parole because they were denied housing because of the “end welfare as we know it” fiasco a few years ago or the lack of decent paying jobs or drug treatment, etc.?   


Frankly I am tired of saying the same things over and over again.  I am certainly not the only one who has been saying this, so I am not a “voice in the wilderness,” although I, along with so many other criminologists, often feel this way, as we are pretty much ignored.  For those interested, get a copy of a book called Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration edited by Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (New Press).  Find it easy through Amazon.com.  It will open your eyes even more.