U.S. Prison System Needs Reform

The posting that follows is the first of what I hope will be many by my friend and fellow advocate Matt McKillop. Matt is one of the smartest and most thorough policy analysts I know. He’s also a top-notch strategist and a great partner. KB

For three decades, the U.S. has been engaged in a mass incarceration experiment. The resulting growth in the number of people in our prison system has been explosive and extraordinarily expensive for our states.

According to a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, about 613,000 adults were behind bars in 1982. By 2007, the number had grown to 2.3 million–an astounding 274% increase. The number of people on parole or probation has grown from about 1.6 million to 5.1 million during the same period.

So there are now around 7.4 million adults–1 out of every 31–under correctional control. This is more than the combined populations of Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and Dallas. It’s also more than the populations of 38 states and the District of Columbia.

The explosion hasn’t been cheap. According to an earlier Pew report, state spending on corrections grew from $10.6 billion in 1987 to $44 billion in 2007. When adjusted for inflation, this is an increase of 127%.

Spending on corrections has crowded out support for programs in other important areas, e.g., education and transportation. For example, from 1987 to 2007, state spending on higher education grew by only 21% in inflation adjusted dollars.

We can’t attribute the expansion of our correctional system to general population growth. In 1982, the population was 232 million. It’s now estimated at about 307 million. That’s only a 32% increase.

Nor can we attribute it to a growth in serious crimes. Attorney General Eric Holder recently reported to the American Bar Association that the nation’s violent crime rate has dropped nearly 40% from its peak in 1991.

Instead, our corrections system has expanded because of policies that require prison time for more crimes–and longer sentences. One example is the “three strikes” policies that require courts to impose extended sentences for people who are convicted of crimes on three or more occasions.

It has also become increasingly common for states to imprison people who commit “technical violations” of their parole or probation, e.g. missing a scheduled meeting.

So are we taxpayers getting our money’s worth in increased public safety? The evidence suggests we are not. This is due to a variety of complicated reasons. But most of them boil down to the fact that we’re imprisoning too many low-level, non-violent criminals. The costs of imprisoning these criminals are far greater than the social costs of their crimes. And we’re learning that locking up low-level drug dealers just opens slots for new dealers to step in.

Because of all this and the devastating budget crises that states are facing, people as politically diverse as Newt Gingrich and Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) are calling for changes. And, in fact, many states are seeking less costly alternatives to prison.

There’s also been action at the federal level. Most promising is the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, introduced by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA). This bill would establish a blue-ribbon commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of our entire criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform.

This is exactly the type of reassessment that the problem demands. So it’s encouraging that the bill has a bipartisan group of influential co-sponsors. As the New York Times recently editorialized, Congress should ensure that the commission is up and running as soon as possible.


2 Responses to U.S. Prison System Needs Reform

  1. […] Reentry Programs Need Improvement I recently argued that our criminal justice system needs an overhaul. Our sentencing policies send far too many […]

  2. […] to these results for state budgets. Because, as with our general propensity to lock people up, our “get tough” juvenile justice policies are inordinately costly — on average, […]

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