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Doing Time . . .

And Doing It Time and Time Again

By Matthew T. Mangino
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page B02

In 1994, John Popovich, a 34-year-old convicted felon, was found guilty on charges of forging a drug prescription -- a crime committed almost exclusively by substance abusers. He was sentenced to five years probation.

During the 10 years since, he has violated his probation and then his parole eight times. By July 1, 2004, Popovich had served more than two years in jail, even though his original sentence did not require jail time.


Today, Popovich sits in a state correctional facility, having been resentenced to a prison term of 2 1/2 to five years. Popovich doesn't deserve pity; he has a criminal record dating back to 1981. He also committed at least two additional criminal offenses while on probation. But his case, which I have followed with growing dismay, highlights the need to make real changes in the rehabilitation and treatment of prisoners in order to end the cycle of re-incarceration.

Every page of Popovich 's lengthy criminal history is evidence not only of enormous waste of public resources but also of a correctional system that has run amok. So much so, that I sometimes feel as if we are operating a revolving door in the courtrooms here in Lawrence County, just north of Pittsburgh, where Popovich is only one of many repeat offenders. Our experience is not unusual. State and local governments are being crushed under the fiscal demands of America's prison system. Cells across the country are full, not because of mandatory sentencing or the incarceration of drug offenders, but because the system produces thousands of people like Popovich every day, having repeatedly failed to help them gain the skills necessary to manage life on the outside.

We are incarcerating more people for longer periods than at any time in our history. That number isn't just increasing; it is soaring. In 1980, the United States had approximately 316,000 inmates in state and federal prisons; by 2000, there were 1.3 million. Currently, we have more than 2 million people incarcerated when you add together federal, state and local jails, not to mention an additional 4.8 million people who are on parole or probation, totaling approximately 3.2 percent of the adult U.S. population.

Behind those numbers lie patterns of behavior that could be treated. Nearly 75 percent of people who enter the prison system have substance abuse problems; they are drug addicted or alcohol dependent. Nearly one in five has mental health issues. There are few life sentences in this country. Virtually everyone who goes into prison eventually gets out, and many go right back.

Here is the irony of the situation: As the cost of maintaining and expanding prisons has increased, most of the funds that states set aside to help prisoners make the transition from prison to life outside have been slashed. In 1991, one in four state prison inmates received treatment for drug addiction. By 1997, one in 10 received treatment. This has occurred even in light of research suggesting inmates in federal prison who receive residential drug treatment are 73 percent less likely to be rearrested.

Of course, the lack of support for inmates goes beyond drug treatment. A significant majority of released inmates face challenges in housing, education, employment and the availability of assistance on release from incarceration. Imagine yourself as an unskilled, unemployed, homeless parolee, possibly prohibited from getting a driver's license, student loans or even access to public housing. What are your options?

Few, as Popovich found out. Sixty-seven percent of parolees nationwide are rearrested or back in prison within three years.

The costs of this are staggering. Between 1980 and 2000, when the total prison population quadrupled from 500,000 to 2 million, corrections' share of all state and local spending doubled while education's share of all state and local spending dropped by 21 percent. In fact, state spending on incarceration increased annually by 6.2 percent, outpacing health care at 5.8 percent, education at 4.2 percent and natural resources at 3.3 percent.

There is another way to look at how we are spending money on prisoners. The average annual cost to incarcerate an inmate in state prison is $22,650, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. If the cost of meaningful substance abuse treatment, skills training and reentry support added 25 percent to the cost of incarceration and reduced recidivism by 25 percent, states would face a short-term loss, then break even within six years and save money within nine. More importantly, there would be 75 to 100 fewer victims of crime for every 100 inmates during that period. With fewer victims, the nearly $450 billion in annual losses experienced by crime victims would also begin to decrease. Not to mention that 37 former inmates would be gainfully employed, paying taxes, raising families and contributing to the local, state and federal economies.

Unfortunately, few people think in these terms, and they often confuse the cause for the burgeoning prison population with measures designed to get tough on crime. Because of mandatory sentencing, criminals who committed multiple violent offenses, used weapons or sold drugs have been put behind bars. Such efforts have had an impact on violent crime. However, those who have paid their debt to society should be given an opportunity to succeed upon reentry into society. Instead they are being dumped on the street to fend for themselves and will eventually feed the cycle of reincarceration.

To complicate matters, in an effort to deal with the soaring costs, government leaders are arbitrarily releasing inmates. Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas, to name a few, are opening prison doors, often commuting sentences or repealing mandatory drug sentences. This shortsighted reaction does nothing but put citizens at risk.

Parole and probation officers, burdened by ever-larger caseloads, struggle with their evolving roles in the criminal justice system. Inmates are normally released conditionally, for a period of parole for which they must comply with rules and regulations monitored by a parole officer.


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