After decades of supercharged incarceration rates, our bloated prison system is straining under its own weight, and policy makers are finally being forced to deal with the need to shrink it.
According to a study last year by The Pew Center on the States entitled “One in 100: Behind bars in America 2008,” the prison population of the United States has nearly quadrupled over the last 25 years while the nation’s population has grown by less than a third.
We now have more inmates per capita than any of the 36 European countries with the largest inmate populations, and our total number of inmates is more than all the inmates in those countries combined.
This comes at a cost. According to a report published last month by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit research group, $1 in every $15 from states’ general funds is now spent on corrections. That doesn’t work in a recession.
Much of the rise in the prison population was because of draconian mandatory sentencing laws that are illogical — sociologically and economically.
On the sociological side, as the criminal justice expert Joel Dvoskin of the University of Arizona explained to me, data overwhelmingly support the idea that locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders makes them worse, not better.
A study from a decade ago that was published in the journal American Psychologist put it this way: “Department of corrections data show that about a fourth of those initially imprisoned for nonviolent crimes are sentenced a second time for committing a violent offense. Whatever else it reflects, this pattern highlights the possibility that prison serves to transmit violent habits and values rather than to reduce them.”
On the economic side, putting nonviolent drug offenders in rehab is cheaper than putting them in prison. A 2006 U.C.L.A. study found that California’s Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act of 2000, which allowed nonviolent drug possession offenders to go to rehab instead of prison, saved taxpayers nearly $2.50 for every $1 invested in the program. (Unfortunately, funding for the program has been gutted.)
Put them in prison and make them worse criminals, or put them in rehab, possibly make them better, and save some money. Sounds like a no-brainer.
There are encouraging signs that policy makers are moving in the right direction. Many states have moved to repeal mandatory minimums, and there is a bill in Congress to repeal federal mandatory sentencing. Furthermore, Attorney General Eric Holder seems to be thinking about this issue the right way. Speaking to the American Bar Association last week, he said, “There is no doubt that we must be tough on crime. But we must also commit ourselves to being smart on crime. ... We need to adopt what works.”
By CHARLES M. BLOW and published in the New York Times on Saturday, August 8 2009