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U.S. Prison Population Sets New Record

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Susan K. Urahn
Managing Director, Pew Center on the States
Friday, February 29, 2008; 10:30 AM

Pew Center on the States managing director Susan K. Urahn was online Friday, Feb. 29 at 10:30 a.m. ET to discuss the center's report (.pdf file) on the record-high U.S. prison population, which outstrips that of any other country, both numerically and as a percentage of the overall population.

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The transcript follows.

Urahn has been doing research and analysis for Pew Charitable Trusts since 1994. Prior to that she worked on education policy for the Minnesota House of Representatives for more than a decade, and also did education research for the University of Minnesota.

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Susan K. Urahn: Hi, I'm Sue Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. Just getting organized here, and we'll start answering questions now. In the meantime, the report is available at www.pewcenteronthestates.org if you need it.

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San Francisco: Were you surprised at the attention the report has received? I ask because, however compellingly presented, the data shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. Is it the 1-in-100 marker that has made people sit up and take notice, even when the upward trends in incarceration have been clear for two decades? (Caveat: I have a background in criminological research, so I may be more aware of these trends than most people, but I hope that the average socially-aware individual at least has been aware of the phenomenon before now.)

Susan K. Urahn: We were a bit surprised by the attention. You are absolutely right, we've been approaching this threshold for quite some time, but when you step back and look at the number, it is quite staggering.

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Austin, Texas: Your study provides timely and important information about the U.S. incarceration rate. I had two questions. First, were you able to examine incarceration rates at the county or city levels? Second, did you consider examining prison admissions for specific types of offenses, such as drug offenses? Thank you for your time.

Susan K. Urahn: We did not look at county and city levels for this report. It is an important point of comparison, but our focus was on states. States define offense categories in very different ways, so it'sdifficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison there.

The larger point, however, is that it's important to look at the relative risk different types of offenders pose for public safety and whether incarceration is the appropriate response. That is what more and more states are doing as they work to protect public safety and be fiscally responsible.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: The Pew study does not include numbers for juvenile prisoners. Why not?

Susan K. Urahn: The study focused, in part, on the financial implications of the incarceration growth. While juveniles are an important part of the equation -- and tend to cost more per inmate than the adult population -- they are a small percentage of the overall inmate population. Less than 5 percent.

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New York: Have you heard from any politicians since this report has been released? Are they generally in favor of such high incarceration rates as "proof" of how tough on crime they are, or do they recognize that many of those in prison are there unjustly?

Susan K. Urahn: What we're seeing is state leaders around the country starting to call timeouts. We are seeing activity in several states where legislators from both parties are saying: "We aren't getting our money's worth out of prisons. Recidivism rates are still too high. Corrections spending is crowding dollars for other pressing priorities, like health care and education. We've got to find a better way."

Kansas and Texas are interesting examples of states where we've seen very thoughtful attention and response to this issue.

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Northern Virginia: One question and a comment: Does this report include illegal aliens in jail? My comment is that you can view this in a positive way and in a negative way. The positive is that it demonstrates this is a nation of laws and that you will be punished for committing a crime. The negative is that it keeps nonviolent criminals in (i.e. casual drug users) at a huge expense to the taxpayer. Those other nations that denounce the U.S. for its high incarceration rate shouldn't be so sanctimonious. Are their justice systems more efficient and less flawed than ours? I think not. What say you?

Susan K. Urahn: In our report, illegal immigrants would appear both in the numerator (prisoners) and denominator (adult residents in the general population) -- but we don't break them out in either case. There is no reliable data available to do so.

Our report is aimed particularly at state policy-makers, and this informed the definitions used. It's worth noting that we excluded some adults from our count of the incarcerated population, including all those in Immigration Customs Enforcement and military facilities, as well as jails in Indian country.

A recent report by The Third Way explains that the incarceration rate of young immigrant men is a fraction of the rate for their U.S. born counterparts. This suggests that the immigrant population actually serves to dilute the U.S. incarceration rate.

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Washington: Is there any data on what percentage of the prison population previously was incarcerated, released, and returned to prison?

Susan K. Urahn: Recidivism rates vary from state to state, but they average around 50 percent returned to prison within three years of release, either for a new conviction or for a technical violation of the conditions of their parole or probation.

California, for example, has a 70 percent recidivism rate -the highest in the country.

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Washington: One small technical question -- the article states that 1 in 100 people are in jail or prison. What is the difference between jail and prison? I had assumed that the two terms were synonymous.

Susan K. Urahn: Generally speaking, prison is where sentences of more than a year are served. Jail is for offenders detained pre-trial or for sentences for under a year.

Prisons generally are managed and paid for by state government. Jails are run by local jurisdictions. There are seven states that have unified systems, where the states run both.

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Maryland: Hello. I am concerned about the public health consequences of passing so many individuals through prisons, which are petri dishes for infectious diseases such as multiply-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. What can be done to diminish the public health risks associated with incarceration?

Susan K. Urahn: The health issues are part of what is driving the costs of the incarceration growth. About 10 percent of state corrections spending is devoted to medical care costs. These costs are growing steadily.

It is also worth noting the graying of the prison population. The number of inmates aged 50 or older jumped 173 percent between 1992 and 2001. Older prisoners tend to be less of a risk to public safety and more expensive -- the average annual cost for geriatric inmates is $70,000 per year -- three times that of a younger inmate.

Of course, the key driver of costs is the sheer number of inmates.

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Murder Rate v. Incarceration Rate: I know that the tough-on-crime advocates associate declining crime rates with high incarceration rates. Could you comment on that? I'm thinking specifically of something I read (can't remember where) suggesting that better emergency medical care was a factor in reduced homicide rates.

Susan K. Urahn: A review of research on the crime-incarceration connection by the Vera Institute of Justice found that "a 10 percent increase in incarceration is associated with a 2 to 4 percent drop in crime." It's important to remember, however, that incarceration is subject to the law of diminishing returns -- particularly when the net is cast very widely and includes a large number of low-level offenders. The Vera report is available here.

The Vera report, reviewing a considerable body of existing evidence, also found that imprisonment was responsible for only 25 percent of the substantial crime drop between 1992 and 1997. This indicates that incarceration is not the dominant force in crime control that many people assume.

Increased incarceration doesn't necessarily mean that states are going to see and increase in public safety -- take New York and Florida, for example. Between 1993 and 2006, Florida's prison population increased by 75 percent and its violent crime rate decreased by 41 percent. That might sound like an open-and-shut case for building prisons. But consider the case of New York: during the same time period, New York's prison population decreased (by a modest 2 percent) and its violent crime rate decreased by 59 percent.

So, what did New York do to achieve these reductions in crime without breaking the bank with new prison construction? There appear to have been several forces at play. Some of these forces, like an improving economy and the revitalization of several urban areas, helped to generate more robust labor markets. Other forces, like the waning of the crack epidemic and demographic shifts, dried up the pool of at-risk individuals. But it's important to emphasize the assertive stance taken by criminal justice agencies as well.

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College Park, Md.: What has been the real concern, the number of people in the criminal justice system or the costs? I get the feeling people say "wow, 1 percent of the population," but "oh my gosh!" when they see it's a $50-billion, tax-supported industry in this country.

Susan K. Urahn: We have heard concern expressed on both fronts. The cost is of concern because it is not clear that the level of public safety returned is commensurate with the cost. The number of incarcerated individuals drives the cost.

We also have heard concern about the cost of corrections crowding out states' ability to invest in several other important areas -- preschool, education, economic development and so on. These are the investments states need to make to be competitive in the coming decades.

Finally, there are also many who are concerned about the impacts of incarceration beyond the fiscal -- the impacts on families and communities.

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Washington: Good morning Ms. Urahn and thank you for taking the time to do this chat. Do you see this report helping to change the attitude on how we punish people? The fact that we are so far ahead of any other country in the amount of people we lock up is troubling, in my opinion, and there must be better, more effective and more cost-efficient ways of meting out punishment.

Susan K. Urahn: We hope that this report helps states find research-riven, fiscally responsible and very effective ways to protect public safety. People want to be safe, but they want government to get the job done efficiently.

There are several states that have shown that there is a better way to do this - Kansas, Nevada, Texas and others. They are really blazing a path we hope others will follow.

Texas makes a very interesting example. Despite having built more than 100,000 prison beds in the 1980s and '90s, Texas was looking at a 17,000-bed shortfall by 2012 at an additional cost of $900 million for fiscal years 2008 and 2009. To avert further growth in the prison population and reduce recidivism, Texas lawmakers enacted a package of criminal justice policies to improve success rates for people on community supervision, expand the capacity of treatment and diversion programs, and enhance the use of parole for low-risk offenders. To fund the package, they reinvested $241 million (which otherwise would have been appropriated for the construction and operation of new prisons) for additional treatment and diversion programs.

By enacting these policies, the state saved $210.5 million for the 2008-2009 fiscal biennium. If new treatment and diversion programs are successful and no additional prisons are constructed, the state will save an additional $233 million. Texas also reinvested in the expansion of the Nurse-Family Partnerships Program -- a nationally recognized model for improving outcomes for low-income families and reducing crime -- to reach 2,000 families/children.

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Alexandria, Va.: Are you aware of any national or local programs that are effective in reducing recidivism?

Susan K. Urahn: There are several worth looking at. Drug courts have been evaluated and shown to be effective at reducing recidivism. Virtually every state has some in place. If they are well run, they can reduce recidivism by up to 50 percent.

Programs that use cognitive-behavioral therapy and address risk factors associated with criminal behavior have been shown to cut recidivism by nearly 30 percent.

You can find information about a range of effective supervision strategies for parolees and probationers on the National Institute of Corrections Web site.

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Susan K. Urahn: There are several questions that suggest the answer to crime is simply to lock all offenders up.

We all want violent and career offenders locked up, but despite having quadrupled the prison population in the past 25 years, we have not quadrupled public safety. We cannot build our way into public safety. There are several effective ways to hold offenders accountable in community punishment programs that are just as effective and far less expensive than incarceration. Several states are exploring just such approaches.

For the same amount of money, you could keep one inmate behind bars for an additional year, or you could provide treatment and intensive supervision for several others -- and cut the recidivism rate considerably.

This can be a win-win situation for states. They can invest in approaches that cost less and provide better outcomes.

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Washington -- U.S. Bureau of Prisons Employee: Your study is deeply flawed and loaded with technical errors. Your jurisdiction analysis is wrong. Five states -- not seven -- have "unified" systems. The D.C. Corrections Department never actually was federalized -- see the District's Web site. I am very suspicious of the statistics you've used.

Susan K. Urahn: The information in the report about the District of Columbia comes from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

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Susan K. Urahn: We are to the end of our hour. Many thanks to all of you for your questions. We have a lot of additional data on our Web site about state approaches to corrections.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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