More Than One in 100 Americans Now in Jail

(Update (TL): More than 1 in 100 Americans are now in jail or prison. As TChris writes below, it's staggering. America: Prison Nation. #1 incarcerator in the world.)

Consider this:

With more than 2.3 million people behind bars at the start of 2008, the United States leads the world in both the number and the percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving even far more populous China a distant second, noted the report by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States.

Before you start chanting "We're number 1," consider the cost of living in Prison Nation:

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

If you're thinking "there must be a better way," you're right:

[W]hen it comes to preventing repeat offenses by nonviolent criminals -- who make up about half of the incarcerated population -- alternative punishments such as community supervision and mandatory drug counseling that are far less expensive may prove just as or more effective than jail time. ...

"There is no question that putting violent and chronic offenders behind bars lowers the crime rate and provides punishment that is well deserved," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project and one of the study's authors. "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."

Elected officials tend to treat drug crimes as if they were inevitably violent crimes, leading to high incarceration rates for drug offenders -- a policy that has had at best a negligible impact on the availability of illicit drugs. Drug treatment and public education (and the decriminalization of marijuana) would focus public resources in a more effective and less costly response to drug abuse.

More broadly, alternatives to incarceration, after a quarter century pursuit of a failed "lock 'em up" mentality to crime, are increasingly necessary as state governments look for ways to avoid bankruptcy in a sluggish economy.

About 91 percent of incarcerated adults are under state or local jurisdiction, and the report documents the tradeoffs state governments have faced as they have devoted ever larger shares of their budgets to house them. For instance, over the past two decades, state spending on corrections (adjusted for inflation) increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education rose by 21 percent. For every dollar Virginia spends on higher education, it now spends about 60 cents on corrections. Maryland spends 74 cents on corrections per higher-education dollar. ...

It's time for elected officials to stop being mindlessly "tough on crime" and to start being "smart on crime." The elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and two- or three-strikes laws would be a good beginning. It isn't a bad thing to let judges tailor sentences to the particular crime and offender. Facing the prospect of ever-growing prison budgets and ever-shrinking resources to invest in more productive projects, legislators may finally see the light.

[A] number of states, including Texas, are seeking to reduce their incarcerated population by adopting alternative punishments. "Some of these [measures] would have been unthinkable five years ago," noted Gelb. "But the bottom line is that states have to balance their budgets."

The report is here (pdf).

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    the tragic thing (5.00 / 2) (#1)
    by urduja on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 12:10:42 PM EST
    is that most people in prison, especially women, have a history of trauma -- childhood sexual and physical abuse (about 85%). Many of these women have psychiatric disorders and substance use problems as a result.

    Really, it's the war on drugs and a lack of mental health services, that's causing the prison population to balloon.

    And, it's also a big industry and a huge source of revenue.

    TL Fundraiser In Progress (none / 0) (#15)
    by FoxholeAtheist on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 08:50:13 PM EST
    Don't mind me, I'm just tucking in here with a fund-raising suggestion:

    Let's all donate something tonight before we log out, no matter how big or small - according to our individual means.

    Heads up: I'll be posting this elsewhere tonight at TL.


    the penal industry (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by cpinva on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 12:29:35 PM EST
    will fight tooth and nail to keep that prison population high. there's money in them thar convicts! lots of it.

    legislatures contribute in another way: the more things made illegal, the larger the potential criminal population. this goes from localities all the way up the legislative food chain.

    laws making it illegal to wear droopy shorts serve no particular useful purpose, other than making some no-name local politician a name. fortunately, most proposals of this nature never make it beyond the "there oughta be a law!" stage. unfortunately, enough do that conceivably every single one of us is guilty, at one time or another, of being in violation of some little known criminal statute.

    perhaps a moratorium on adding to the criminal statutes, until the codes are cleansed, might help.

    pardon me while i don't hold my breath.

    a moratorium.... (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by kdog on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 12:52:56 PM EST
    well said cp....I've said the same many times.

    The first candidate who campaigns on gutting the criminal code by approx. half is the first candidate I send money too!

    I think Ayn Rand was onto something when she said this about the criminalization of just about everything.

    There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted and you create a nation of law-breakers.

    It's also about control...as long as they have the chains and cages to hold over our heads we don't ask too many questions.


    Sadly, my firm funds those jails (none / 0) (#11)
    by lilybart on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 06:21:47 PM EST
    the ones on the TX/MX border.

    I need the job, Ileave at 4pm to take care of my daughter, but I hate knowing that jails are GOOD for my company.


    from personal experience (5.00 / 1) (#3)
    by thereyougo on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 12:32:44 PM EST
    with a son who struggled in school, intervention should start then.To a  degree it is now recognized, but IMO its not enough. Learning disabilities are factored in now when 15 years ago they were hardly mentioned. Even transcendental meditaion is being tried!

    Impressionable kids are often kicked out of school or become discouraged and margainalized at an early age into a life of failure and end up in the penal system.

    The nuclear family is a thing of the past that should also be factored in. Single parents raising kids with no one at home afterschool makes a difference. Unsupervised kids will be kids.

    Privatization Rears its ugly head again (5.00 / 2) (#4)
    by Joike on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 12:36:21 PM EST
    Here is another place where "free market" philosophy works against the common good.

    More and more prisons in the US are privately run.  The state outsources the work with the idea that private contractors can run prisons more efficiently than the state itself.

    The problem is that it creates an economic incentive to keep these prisons full so the company can continue to make money.

    The state's goal, you would think, should be to lower the number of crimes committed so you have fewer people in jail, but now you have powerful interests who want and need large numbers of prisoners.

    3 strikes and you're out.  The war on drugs.  Sentencing guidelines.

    All these elements create large numbers of prisoners serving long sentences generating huge profits for the companies running the prisons.

    The helpful thing about people going to prison is that it creates repeat business as once you get out you have a high probability of returning.

    I guess as long as it is in service to the invisible hand of the free market, that's a good thing.  Sigh.

    not just the private sector (none / 0) (#9)
    by Joe Bob on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 04:36:14 PM EST
    The perverse incentives go way beyond the private sector.

    Example #1: Especially in California, the corrections officers union is a political powerhouse. I'm generally pro-union, but when protecting your job means putting more people in prison longer I don't think that's right.

    Example #2: Prisons have become de facto jobs programs for rural communities. Just like with obsolete military bases, prisons develop their own constituencies regardless of their ongoing usefulness.

    Example #3: Interstate commerce in prisoners. Locales with 'surplus' jail or prison beds have come to rely on the revenue they get for housing other locales' surplus prisoners. This is no less insidious than the incentives that have built up around asset forfeiture, which police forces have come to rely on for revenue.


    Three Strikes Law (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by KevinMc on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 12:40:34 PM EST
    About ten years ago when I was still living in Los Angeles a pretty good friend of mine became involved with drugs and immediately became an addict.  He was arrested three times for possession of "crack" cocaine and charged with a felony for each charge.  This was a young man who I think would have benefited greatly from rehabilitation.  He is now serving 25 years to life.  I was at his sentencing hearing and the judge actually apologized to him about having "his hands tied" because of sentencing guidelines.  I still wonder "what if"  What if this young, intelligent man would have been given the mental health help he needed?  How many people could have he had perhaps helped overcome addiction?  What contribution to society would have he made if only we treated drug addiction as a health issue instead of a moral issue?  What if?

    First (5.00 / 1) (#19)
    by Deconstructionist on Fri Feb 29, 2008 at 07:54:29 AM EST
      we need to approximate the causes for the prison population explosion.

     People being imprisoned because they smoke marijuana is not among them. If the possession and use of marijuana was legalized tomorrow the impact on prison populations would be below neglible. (Many excellent reasons for legalizing the recreational use of marijuana exist but decreasing prison populations is not among them.) Furthermore, if we immediately released every convict whose only offense was selling small amounts of marijuana we'd reduce the prison population by far less than 1%.

      Getting that out of the way, we could begin to address real issues.  This begins with acknowledging that even imposing alternative sentences on  all non-violent first offenders standing alone won't help very much in the long run. Why? Because we have many violent offenders and we have many repeat offenders.

      The real questions are  how do we reduce the incidence of violence in our society and, probably most importantly, what can we do that will be effective to reduce recidivism after a first offense.

      One fallacy,  I believe, is the notion that eliminating drug prohibition will reduce crime dramatically because it will mean less laws for people to violate. I don't believe that is true.

      Many people sell illegal drugs quite simply because they want the money. If we eliminate that method of making money, they will still want money and many of them will not then choose to go get a legal job, but rather will choose other illegal methods of making money.

      Ultimately, the answers lie in somehow creating a society where far fewer people are willing to break laws to get money and also where the use of violence is less prevalent both to get money and to "solve" disputes between persons and groups.

      The whole idea that the "criminal justice system" is the locus where these problems will be solved is largely  erroneous. The criminal justice system basically operates where society has failed.


    Interesting point. According the DOJ: (5.00 / 1) (#20)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Feb 29, 2008 at 01:31:29 PM EST
    recent estimates from the BJS show that at midyear 2002, approximately 8,400 state prisoners (0.7% total state prisoner population) were serving time for possessing
    marijuana in any amount.

    Fewer than half of that group, or about
    3,600 inmates, were incarcerated on a first offense.

    In other words, of the more than 1.2 million people doing time in state prisons across America, only a small fraction (0.3%) were firsttime offenders sentenced just for marijuana possession. And again, this figure includes possession of any amount.

    Many inmates ultimately sentenced for marijuana possession were initially crimes but were able to or lighter sentences through plea agreements with prosecutors.

    On the federal level, prosecutors focus largely on traffickers, kingpins, and other major drug criminals, so federal marijuana cases often involve hundreds of pounds of the drug.

    Cases involving smaller amounts are typically handled on the state level. This is part of the reason why hardly anyone ends up in federal prison for simple possession of marijuana.

    The fact is, of all drug defendants sentenced in federal court for marijuana offenses in 2001, the vast majority were convicted of trafficking.

    Only 2.3 percent--186 people--were sentenced for simple possession, and of the 174 for whom sentencing information is known, just 63 actually served time behind bars.

    It's important to point out that many inmates ultimately sentenced for marijuana possession were initially charged with more serious crimes but were able to negotiate reduced charges or lighter sentences through plea agreements with prosecutors.

    Therefore, the 2.3 percent figure for simple possession defendants may give an inflated impression of the true number, since it also includes those inmates who pled down from more serious charges.

    All right, so what's the solution (3.00 / 2) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 12:56:57 PM EST
    re: the prison "industry" and cost?

    Are rehab/etc. programs less expensive than prisons? I mean really, factually, less expensive, not some pie in the sky number that says they're less expensive (and, in a remarkable coincidence, also support the anti-prison/pro-rehab argument.

    Who do you suppose would run such massive rehab programs? The govt? Or will it be sub-contracted?

    What present industry do you think is the logical recipient of criminal rehab program contracts?

    I'm all for rehab type programs - that work - and thereby less incarceration, but I'm not sold in the least that they'll be less expensive and/or less open to well-deserved ridicule than our present prison system.

    Probation works some of the time (none / 0) (#8)
    by JSN on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 04:34:47 PM EST
    and it is unrealistic to expect it to work all of the time. Often a probation violation is relatively harmless but if you put the wrong people on probation in an effort to save money the net result is the probation officers will devote most of their resources to watching the dangerous clients and slack off supervision of the less dangerous. The usual outcome is an increase in the number of persons admitted to prison on a probation violation negating any cost saving at the cost of increased risk to public safety.

    This is one of the costs of "tuff on crime" because people want offenders locked up they don't want them on probation (unless it is their kid).


    good money after bad isn't the solution (none / 0) (#10)
    by wreck on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 06:05:55 PM EST
    We put more people in jail than communist China, sarcastic unnamed one. 25% of all prisoners IN THE WORLD are in prison in America.

    And you're not sold on rehab programs that might work at putting us in line with what our government considers one of the most repressive, authoritarian regimes existent? But you're willing to stick with something you definitively know DOESN'T work to produce safe communities or reduce recidivism; is extremely expensive, in terms of monetary resources expended, individual lives wasted and communities torn apart; and is one of the most pernicious forms our nation's racism takes (after all, in black, Latino, and Native-American communities, people have a far greater chance of going to prison than of getting a decent education)?

    Imprisoning 1 out of 100 adult Americans is a sick and ridiculous joke. We can never know how something we haven't tried will work until we try it (in this case, we have -- rehabilitation and prevention, giving people opportunity and education, ARE less expensive); that doesn't mean we shouldn't try it.

    Let's get non-violent offenders out of jail (57% of the prison population was convicted for a non-violent offense), take the money we spend now on prisons, and put it into creating better schools, recreation centers, and other youth and adult learning resources. Can't fail any worse than we are now.


    No, wreck, (none / 0) (#17)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Feb 29, 2008 at 01:26:22 AM EST
    I said
    I'm not sold in the least that they'll be less expensive and/or less open to well-deserved ridicule than our present prison system.
    The rest of what you wrote is of your own imagination.

    Decriminalize marijuana (none / 0) (#12)
    by lilybart on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 06:23:37 PM EST
    and you solve the prison problem. Solve it.

    And someone caught smoking pot or selling some to a friend, does not need REHAB.

    Crack, meth and heroin users NEED help. Most pot smokers just need cookies.


    Leave out marijuana and the rehab is doable (none / 0) (#13)
    by lilybart on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 06:24:48 PM EST
    for the people who have heroin or meth problems. They cannot be solved on their own.

    decriminalize drug offenses (none / 0) (#14)
    by wreck on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 06:42:09 PM EST
    Lily is right on. But why imprison people with meth or heroin addictions at all? The logic in this country is that people who are drug addicts commit crimes, but statistically speaking, the only crime most drug addicts commit is doing drugs. So even if drug users can't quit taking drugs, why lock them up? They're not hurting anybody (presumably social services could protect children from negligent parents) and when you decriminalize this sort of drug use and make needles available, you also end up alleviating what is a major public health problem.

    "Nonviolent drug crimes" (none / 0) (#16)
    by diogenes on Thu Feb 28, 2008 at 09:41:19 PM EST
    I wonder what percentage of the people in prison for "nonviolent drug crimes" have committed violent crimes in the past and maybe even were charged for a violent crime but plea bargained it down to a "nonviolent drug crime".  Or maybe were offered drug treatment but signed out AMA or violated other conditions of a drug court.  Around here you have to work hard to get kicked from drug court to prison and no Sunday School teachers suddenly do 3 to 10 years for a first possession charge.

    from something or other to do with the "outlandish costs of our prison system" to the "more than 1 in 100" title? Kind of changes the whole tenor of the thread, don't you think?