[News] More than 11% young Black men in prison

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Feb 29 13:28:22 EST 2008

Link to complete report

New High In U.S. Prison Numbers
Growth Attributed To More Stringent Sentencing Laws

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008; A01

More than one in 100 adults in the United States is in jail or 
prison, an all-time high that is costing state governments nearly $50 
billion a year and the federal government $5 billion more, according 
to a report released yesterday.

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States 
leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it 
incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous 
a distant second, according to a study by the nonpartisan 
Center on the States.

The growth in prison population is largely because of tougher state 
and federal sentencing imposed since the mid-1980s. Minorities have 
been particularly affected: One in nine black men ages 20 to 34 is 
behind bars. For black women ages 35 to 39, the figure is one in 100, 
compared with one in 355 for white women in the same age group.

The report compiled and analyzed data from several sources, including 
the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and Bureau of Prisons and 
each state's department of corrections. It did not include 
individuals detained for noncriminal immigration violations.

Although studies generally find that imprisoning more offenders 
reduces crime, the effect may be less influential than changes in the 
unemployment rate, wages, the ratio of police officers to residents 
and the proportion of young people in the population, report 
co-author Adam Gelb said.

In addition, when it comes to preventing repeat offenses by 
nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated 
population -- less-expensive punishments such as community 
supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug counseling 
might prove as much or more effective than jail.

For instance, 
which has almost doubled its prison population over the past 15 
years, has experienced a smaller drop in crime than 
York, which, after a brief increase, has reduced its number of 
inmates to below the 1993 level.

"There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders 
behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is 
well deserved," said Gelb, who as director of the Center's Public 
Safety Performance Project advises states on developing alternatives 
to incarceration. "On the other hand, there are large numbers of 
people behind bars who could be supervised in the community safely 
and effectively at a much lower cost -- while also paying taxes, 
paying restitution to their victims and paying child support."

Q. Wilson, who in the 1980s helped develop the "broken windows" 
theory that smaller crimes must be punished to deter more serious 
ones, agreed that sentences for some drug crimes were too long. 
However, Wilson disagreed that the rise in the U.S. prison population 
should be considered a cause for alarm: "The fact that we have a 
large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it 
has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we 
have had in this country."

About 91 percent of incarcerated adults are under state or local 
jurisdiction. And the report also documents the tradeoffs state 
governments have faced as they devote larger shares of their budgets 
to house them. For instance, over the past two decades, state 
spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased 127 
percent; spending on higher education rose 21 percent.

Five states -- 
-- now spend as much as or more on corrections as on higher 
education. Locally, 
is near the top, spending 74 cents on corrections for every dollar it 
spends on higher education. 
spends 60 cents on the dollar.

Despite reaching its latest milestone, the nation's incarcerated 
population has been growing more slowly since 2000 than it did during 
the 1990s, when harsher sentencing laws began to take effect. These 
included a 1986 federal law (since revised) mandating prison terms 
for crack cocaine offenses that were up to eight times as long as for 
those involving powder cocaine. In the 1990s, many states adopted 
"three-strikes-you're-out" laws and curtailed the powers of parole boards.

Many state systems also send offenders back to prison for technical 
violations of their parole or probation, such as failing a drug test 
or missing an appointment with a supervisory officer. A 2005 study of 
system, for example, found that more than two-thirds of parolees were 
being returned to prison within three years of release, 40 percent 
for technical infractions.

"We're just stuck in this carousel that people get off of, then get 
right back on again," said 
Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who as 
York City police commissioner in the 1990s oversaw a significant 
reduction in crime.

Because of these policy shifts, the nationwide prison population 
swelled by about 80 percent from 1990 to 2000, increasing by as much 
as 86,000 a year. By contrast, from 2007 to 2008, that population 
increased by 25,000, a 2 percent rise.

Supreme Court has recently issued decisions giving judges more leeway 
under mandatory sentencing laws, and a number of states -- including 
which has the country's second-highest incarceration rate -- are 
seeking to reduce their prison population by adopting alternative punishments.

Last year, Maryland officials began developing a new risk-assessment 
system to ensure that low-level offenders are not kept in jail longer 
than necessary, said Shannon Avery, executive director of a policy 
planning division of the state's Department of Public Safety.

"That's what you have to do when you don't have enormous amounts of 
tax dollars available for building prisons," she said.

Among the early innovators that states can look to is Virginia, which 
overhauled its system for sentencing nonviolent offenders in the 
mid-1990s. Although the state's incarceration rate remains relatively 
high, Virginia has managed to slow the growth of its prison 
population substantially and reduce the share of its budget spent on 
corrections while still reducing its crime rate.

State judges use a point system to weigh factors believed to predict 
a lawbreaker's likelihood of becoming a repeat offender or otherwise 
pose a threat to public safety. Those deemed low risk are given 
alternative sentences. As a result, the share of Virginia prison beds 
occupied by nonviolent convicts has dropped, from 40 percent in 1994 
to 23 percent in 2007.

"The idea is to make a distinction between the people we're afraid of 
and the ones we're just ticked off at," said Rick Kern, director of 
the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. "Not that you shouldn't 
punish them. But if it's going to cost $27,500 a year to keep them 
locked up, then maybe we should be smarter about how we do it."

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