Friday, July 11, 2008
TWO REPORTS by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the rate of growth in the prison and jail populations of the United States has slowed slightly but that the country still has the dubious distinction of being the largest jailer in the world. As of June 30, 2007, the country held roughly 2.3 million people behind bars, either in local or state jails or in federal prisons.
The cost of housing and caring for inmates has been astronomical, an estimated $55 billion annual expense for taxpayers, according to the Pew Center on the States. The bloated number of inmates has been particularly painful for states, some of which have been forced to cut spending for higher education to fund corrections programs. As a result, California is considering an overhaul of its prison policies, as are Kentucky, Mississippi, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
This fiscal crisis should be a wake-up call for all states. Tough sentences for murder, rape and the like are unquestionably necessary and contributed to a drop in such crimes over the past two decades. But prisons should be focused on holding the most dangerous criminals rather than on warehousing nonviolent, first-time offenders.
States should consider, as New Jersey is, redirecting nonviolent, first-time drug offenders to rehabilitation programs. Like California, states should also debate early release for the most well-behaved inmates who have no violence in their records -- an approach that provides an incentive for good behavior. And states should consider reducing harsh penalties for nonviolent drug offenses. Some states are considering eliminating parole and thus saving the cost of employing agents to provide the supervision. They should be careful; oversight of recently released prisoners can be critical in keeping them on track.
On a national level, Congress should continue to press ahead with legislation to reduce the sentencing disparity between convictions for crack and powder cocaine; the guidelines call for a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine to serve the same mandatory minimum sentence as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. The disparity has, among other things, led to a disproportionate number of African Americans behind bars for possession of relatively small quantities of cocaine. Modest reductions in the federal sentencing guidelines for crack have brought some balance to the penalties, but more needs to be done.