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New High In U.S. Prison Numbers

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Many state systems also send offenders back to prison for technical violations of their parole or probation, such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment with a supervisory officer. A 2005 study of California's system, for example, found that more than two-thirds of parolees were being returned to prison within three years of release, 40 percent for technical infractions.

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"We're just stuck in this carousel that people get off of, then get right back on again," said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who as New York City police commissioner in the 1990s oversaw a significant reduction in crime.

Because of these policy shifts, the nationwide prison population swelled by about 80 percent from 1990 to 2000, increasing by as much as 86,000 a year. By contrast, from 2007 to 2008, that population increased by 25,000, a 2 percent rise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recently issued decisions giving judges more leeway under mandatory sentencing laws, and a number of states -- including Texas, which has the country's second-highest incarceration rate -- are seeking to reduce their prison population by adopting alternative punishments.

Last year, Maryland officials began developing a new risk-assessment system to ensure that low-level offenders are not kept in jail longer than necessary, said Shannon Avery, executive director of a policy planning division of the state's Department of Public Safety.

"That's what you have to do when you don't have enormous amounts of tax dollars available for building prisons," she said.

Among the early innovators that states can look to is Virginia, which overhauled its system for sentencing nonviolent offenders in the mid-1990s. Although the state's incarceration rate remains relatively high, Virginia has managed to slow the growth of its prison population substantially and reduce the share of its budget spent on corrections while still reducing its crime rate.

State judges use a point system to weigh factors believed to predict a lawbreaker's likelihood of becoming a repeat offender or otherwise pose a threat to public safety. Those deemed low risk are given alternative sentences. As a result, the share of Virginia prison beds occupied by nonviolent convicts has dropped, from 40 percent in 1994 to 23 percent in 2007.

"The idea is to make a distinction between the people we're afraid of and the ones we're just ticked off at," said Rick Kern, director of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission. "Not that you shouldn't punish them. But if it's going to cost $27,500 a year to keep them locked up, then maybe we should be smarter about how we do it."


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