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Crime & Justice

U.S. Prison Population Seeing “Unprecedented Increase”

WASHINGTON, Feb 4 2013 (IPS) - The research wing of the U.S. Congress is warning that three decades of “historically unprecedented” build-up in the number of prisoners incarcerated in the United States have led to a level of overcrowding that is now “taking a toll on the infrastructure” of the federal prison system.

Over the past 30 years, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the federal prison population has jumped from 25,000 to 219,000 inmates, an increase of nearly 790 percent. Swollen by such figures, for years the United States has incarcerated far more people than any other country, today imprisoning some 716 people out of every 100,000. (Although CRS reports are not made public, a copy can be found here.)

“This is one of the major human rights problems within the United States, as many of the people caught up in the criminal justice system are low income, racial and ethnic minorities, often forgotten by society,” Maria McFarland, deputy director for the U.S. programme at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

In recent years, as a consequence of the imposition of very harsh sentencing policies, McFarland’s office has seen new patterns emerging of juveniles and very elderly people being put in prison.

“Last year, some 95,000 juveniles under 18 years of age were put in prison, and that doesn’t count those in juvenile facilities,” she noted.

“And between 2007 and 2011, the population of those over 64 grew by 94 times the rate of the regular population. Prisons clearly aren’t equipped to take care of these aging people, and you have to question what threat they pose to society – and the justification for imprisoning them.”

According to the new CRS report, a growing number of these prisoners are being put away for charges related to immigration violations and weapons possession. But the largest number is for relatively paltry drug offences – an approach that report author Nathan James, a CRS analyst in crime policy, warns may not be useful in bringing down crime statistics.

“Research suggests that while incarceration did contribute to lower violent crime rates in the 1990s, there are declining marginal returns associated with ever increasing levels of incarceration,” James notes. He suggests that one potential explanation for this could be that people have been increasingly incarcerated for crimes in which there is a “high level of replacement”.

For instance, he says, if a serial rapist is incarcerated, the judicial system has the power to prevent further sexual assaults by that offender, and it is likely that no one will take the offender’s place. “However, if a drug dealer is incarcerated, it is possible that someone will step in to take that person’s place,” James writes. “Therefore, no further crimes may be averted by incarcerating the individual.”

Smarter on crime

Of course, the U.S. prison population’s blooming needs to be traced back to changes within the federal criminal justice system. Recent decades have seen an expanding “get tough” approach on crime here, under which even nonviolent offenders are facing stiff prison sentences.

In turn, overcrowding has become a massive issue, with the federal prison system as a whole operating at 39 percent over capacity in 2011, according to CRS. The result has also been significant price overruns, with the Bureau of Prisons budget doubling to nearly 6.4 billion dollars even while hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unaddressed infrastructure problems continue to mount.

Yet the problems being experienced by the federal prison system actually stand in contrast to certain trends at the state level. While some states have dealt with even more worrisome problems of prison overcrowding – including California, which in 2011 was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to take steps to reduce the pressure – recent years have seen movement at the state level to counter overincarceration.

Some of this action may have come from serious state budget crises. Currently, after all, it costs between 25,000 and 30,000 dollars to house a prisoner in the United States.

According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group working on prison reform, prisoner populations in the United States overall declined by around 1.5 percent in 2011. Furthermore, last year lawmakers in 24 states adopted policies that “may contribute to downscaling prison populations”.

“There has been a marked change in the amount of activity at the state level to end our addiction to incarceration,” Vineeta Gupta, deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told IPS.

“Some states are currently having many discussions they would not have had 10 years ago – getting smarter on crime rather than tougher on crime. None of these moves are comprehensive enough to address the large scope of the problem, but they’re very important starting points.”

She continued: “Unfortunately, the federal government has been going in the opposite direction.”

Mandatory minimum

Arguably, the single most important element in explaining the record incarceration numbers both at the federal and state levels could be “mandatory minimum” sentencing requirements, under which federal and state law over the past two decades has automatically required certain prison sentences for certain crimes, particularly for drug offences.

Such polices have eliminated the ability of judges to tailor judicial responses to individual circumstance. Over the years, sitting judges have resigned over mandatory minimum policies, while others have waged high-visibility campaigns for their rollback.

“Particular attention should be given to reforming mandatory minimums and parole release mechanisms as policies that can work to reduce state prison populations,” the Sentencing Project suggests, noting also that “Mandatory minimums do not reduce crime but result in lengthy prison terms that contribute to overcrowding.”

Such analysis echoes parts of the CRS conclusions while also undergirding growing momentum on the issue. According to the Sentencing Project, seven states last year weakened or repealed certain mandatory minimum regulations.

More dramatically, in mid-January, Senator Patrick Leahy, the head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, told a Washington audience that he would support doing away entirely with federal mandatory minimums, which he called “a great mistake”.

“Senator Leahy’s comments are a very big step towards starting a conversation to address a major driver of the federal growth,” the ACLU’s Gupta says. “The hope is that some of the stuff that’s brewing in the states, where crime in some places is still at an all-time low, can now serve as an example for the federal system.”

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  • nacho borealis

    Minor drug offenders fill your prisons
    You don’t even flinch
    All our taxes paying for your wars
    Against the new non-rich,
    Minor drug offenders fill your prisons
    You don’t even flinch
    All our taxes paying for your wars
    Against the new non-rich,

    All research and successful drug policy shows
    That treatment should be increased,
    And law enforcement decreased,
    While abolishing mandatory minimum sentences,
    All research and successful drug policy shows
    That treatment should be increased,
    And law enforcement decreased,
    While abolishing mandatory minimum sentences.

    They’re trying to build a prison,
    They’re trying to build a prison,
    They’re trying to build a prison,
    For you and me,
    Oh baby, you and me.

  • novenator

    There are only 2 possible conclusions: either the US is full of people
    more naturally inclined towards being criminals, or the laws and
    punishments are just too damned strict.

  • John Tepper Marlin

    The state programs referred to by the ACLU seem to be working. The number of inmates in state prisons has been declining in the last decade, because of initiatives that state governments are trying because they are tired of seeing the corrections budget climb higher and higher. The New Jersey prison population fell by nearly 25% in the last 12 years – 7,000 fewer people incarcerated. New York numbers are similar.

  • Abelli

    World Leading Jailer – for security reason – offer “More Democracy, More Incarceration
    The devastating mix of politics and crime policy (Radley Balko | October 25, 2010, based on public opinion happy sentencing, merciless.

    I am left here to die.
    All alone I stand,
    Making my way up the path
    recapturing my life, my heart,
    The fragments of my once reality
    floating just beyond my grasp.
    Then Come the demons:
    They take me away~
    they rip my dreams from me.
    They remind me of my pain.
    They rip at my heart,
    feeding on my soul
    Taking all that’s left.
    but still i walk this path
    The shadows of my past,
    Shattering my dreams.
    The hands that once guided me have gone.
    yet still I stand.
    walking this lonely path.
    all alone.
    fighting the demons,
    living my illusions.
    looking for the guardian
    that had my soul….
    Kimberly T Thompson
    March 30, 1966 to April 4, 2012

  • jenniewalsh

    The globalist organized crime cartel owns and runs the PROFITABLE prisons. When the wicked rule, the people suffer and mourn. MANY judges, prosecutors, lawyers, police, public “defenders” are secret members of the globalist organized crime syndicate (who secretly call themselves “Us” and “Satan worshippers). They have pretty much taken over the prison system and the justice department as part of their RACKETEERING endeavors.
    Fast and pray for America’s deliverance out of the hands of the wicked.

  • Piper Rainbow

    “Research suggests that while incarceration did contribute to lower
    violent crime rates in the 1990s, there are declining marginal returns
    associated with ever increasing levels of incarceration,” James notes.

    Freakonomics questions the initial assumption in this statement. Incarceration leading to lowered crime rates is an assumption based on a correlation in the data. Similar assumptions have been made about law enforcement budget increases, but related data discredits this explanation. The dip in crime rates in the 90s is also correlated with something important that happened a generation earlier: Roe v. Wade. The data STRONGLY suggests that a drop in the population of unplanned children among the impoverished caused the drop in crime rates.

  • Tony Peart

    Cons and Screws . This is odd because crime rates were dropping at the same time the prison population is climbing . American justice seems to be somewhat of an oxymoron

  • Virginia Hall

    this has been going on for decades …it did not happen overnight, and the Congress is just now doing the math? “Tough on Crime” is a campaign slogan, NOT a viable social policy.

  • Chris Robert

    Look in any ghetto in America and ask me what percentage of men have equal access the men have been selling drugs in ghetto in America to just make it since we can not providing liivng wages. When people said we are in a recession a few years ago I just laughed because nothign has changed for low wage workers its always been the same shit everyday.

    I am work 30,000 a year in prison but $7.50 an hour out here making roughly about 9,800 a year after taxes. Been living with family for 10 years hey do we see felons using rdx and blasting down building or unloading thousands of rounds so some trash will let us live atleast in our own ghettos hell no we are out here doing what we have to do to survive. What I say might sond crazy but hell I have been out here 10 years in my mid 30’s never had a women cook for men dont have no friends no body sleeps with me maybe I should of took those jobs with Versace and Armani modeling suits and underwear because trying to be the Man out here isnt possible on 7.50 an hour back when I was a jit a man could work on low wages and rent now with gas and food prices the only ones that can rent in the ghetto are old people and women with children that get reduced rent and pay 30 percent or less for rent while men have to pay almost 100% and sale drugs to just eat. The well to do are in lalal land need to really walk through soem ghettos talk not just to families but over 65 % of African American men because when they find out their own men can not rent in their own ghettos maybe they will find out its not so much a social problem but also a scum bag problem. Gotta be blunt

  • gene456

    “This is odd because crime rates were dropping at the same time the prison population is climbing”
    – Yeah, crime decreases as the prison population increases. Isn’t that perplexing? Hmmm! What in the world could be the explanation for that? Gee, I wonder!

  • Valued Customer

    How many people are in JAIL where
    the VICTIM was the STATE?
    Is it over %50?



    ———See Forbidden Cure.——-
    I always wonder if that is right!

  • demotropolis

    the laws and punishments are designed to fill the beds of for-profit prisons, guaranteeing an obscenely large slave population for the benefit of ‘investors’

  • Fireplace 1