U.S. Prison System Needs Reform

August 23, 2009

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.


New Report Documents Violence Against Homeless People

August 15, 2009

Every once in awhile, we read about some act of violence against a homeless person. Young men set fire to a homeless man. A teenager beats a homeless man to death with a baseball bat. Twin brothers terrorize homeless people in a public park–a woman thrown down a flight of stairs, a sleeping man pounded with his own bicycle, another stabbed.

For 10 years now, the National Coalition for the Homeless has been issuing annual reports on crimes like these. It’s just published the latest.

As NCH readily acknowledges, its data are incomplete, based on news articles and reports from advocates, service providers and homeless and formerly homeless people themselves. But they’re still enough to give one pause.

  • In 2008 alone, 106 homeless people were subject to violent attacks, 27 of them fatal.
  • These attacks occurred in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
  • They included shootings, beatings, rapes, other assaults and at least three human torchings.
  • Victims were predominantly middle-aged and elderly. Of those whose attackers were formally accused, 17.3% were in their 50’s and 10.9% were over 60.

The NCH data are just the tip of the iceberg. Homeless people are understandably reluctant to call the police. And law enforcement authorities don’t have to keep records identifying crimes that seem motivated in whole or in part by the homelessness of the victim. But even the relatively little we know tells us there’s a serious nationwide problem.

So what’s to do? The ultimate solution, of course, is to create enough affordable and permanent supportive housing so that no one has to be homeless any more.

In the interim, we have to look for other policy solutions. One NCH recommends is legislation to make homeless people a protected class under existing hate crimes laws.

The District of Columbia has just joined a relatively small number of jurisdictions in enacting such legislation. Under the just-signed emergency crime bill, the Bias-Related Crime Act is amended to include crimes based on a prejudice against homelessness. This will allow a court to impose up to one and a half times the ordinary maximum fine or jail term if a crime against a homeless person was committed at least in part because of the victim’s homelessness.

The measure is important, I think, as an expression of our collective revulsion against senseless, hateful acts. But I doubt the tougher penalties will serve as a deterrent.

After all, crimes like those in the NCH report aren’t based on rational risk/benefit calculations. Most seem prompted by a felt need for the thrill, release and peer validation of attacking a defenseless person. Some apparently are also fueled by hatred or contempt of homeless people. In short, they’re a symptom of something profoundly wrong in our culture.

What else can we think when someone who strangled and cracked open the skull of a homeless man said, when told who the victim was, “Oh him, he’s just a beggar, a vagrant.”? Or when others arrested for similar crimes said they did it for fun or just because they could?

There’s a pathology here that’s beyond my ken. But I think NCH is right to lay part of the blame on laws that target homeless people for innocuous acts like sitting or sleeping in public places, loafing, loitering or living in cars–not to mention laws that prohibit feeding them.

So passing hate crimes laws won’t be enough. Nor, I think, will eliminating laws that criminalize homelessness or putting homeless education programs in our schools, as NCH also recommends. But these are all steps in the right direction.

Not as good as ending homelessness or the deep-seated alienation and rage of young men who get pumped up by “beat[ing] down some bums.” But positive nonetheless.