On February 28 I posted a brief note about a new report from the Pew Center on the States that brought some startling statistics to the public eye. With a record-high population of more than 2.3 million adults behind bars, the report found, America now incarcerates more than one in every 100 adults.
The report included a cascade of similarly dismal figures on the demographics and outsize costs associated with the US prison leviathan. Consider: the national population of prisoners has nearly tripled in the past three decades, and total state spending on corrections has spiked from $12 billion in 1987 to more than $49 billion last year. States now spend an average of 60 cents on corrections for every dollar invested in higher education; in 2007, four states spent more money on prisons than college. The racial breakdown is, of course, appalling: nationally, black men are about seven times more likely than white men to land in jail or prison (Latino men are roughly three times more likely); the incarceration rate for black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is one in nine.
It’s not too late to put the system on a crash diet, the report concluded. A two-pronged strategy of reducing admissions (by redirecting low-risk offenders to community treatment programs and scrapping a punitive approach toward parole violators) and decreasing the length of certain sentences would dramatically cut population size and curb costs without jeopardizing public safety.
A few days after the report came out, I called Bruce Western, a criminal justice expert at Harvard University, to hear his thoughts on its findings and policy prescriptions and on the prospects for implementing them. “Maybe correctional budgets have now gotten so large that a left-right coalition could mobilize around reducing the size of the penal system,” he told me. Then again, he added, the Pew report is merely the latest in a long succession of common-sense calls for sentencing reform, all of which have gone unheeded. “If we had said in 1990 that the system is going to double in size over the next fifteen years,” Western said, “I think a lot of people would have thought that was a pretty crazy forecast.”
The New York Times drew a similar conclusion in an editorial it ran on Monday of this week. These statistics, the paper wrote, “point to a terrible waste of money and lives”:
They underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety. The key, as some states are learning, is getting smarter about distinguishing between violent criminals and dangerous repeat offenders, who need a prison cell, and low-risk offenders, who can be handled with effective community supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug treatment programs, combined in some cases with shorter sentences.
Persuading public officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach to prison policy is a daunting prospect, however, not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry.