The increasing reliance in the U.S. on the use of incarceration as a criminal sanction is a costly and ineffective way to combat crime, according to a new report by the American Bar Association's (ABA) Criminal Justice Section. The report, authored by Professor Lynn S. Branham for the ABA Criminal Justice Section's Corrections and Sentencing Committee, examines what it calls the "astronomical" rise in prison population in the U.S. in recent years, and current criminal sentencing practices and makes a number of specific recommendations to change present policies.
"Studies have repeatedly shown that the problems plaguing our nation's corrections system, such as jail overcrowding and cost overruns, are not being alleviated by using current sentencing practices," explains Committee Chairman Barry Mahoney. "We must move past relying solely on traditional sentencing and look for more effective ways of handling convicted persons."
According to the report, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. In the last 10 years alone, the number of people confined in the nation's prisons has more than doubled. In fact, it reveals, in 1990 "1,100 bedspaces had to be added each week to provide room for the increased number of prisoners."
The report raises the question of whether or not we are any safer because we are incarcerating so many people. It cites statistics on crime and incarceration rates that over time show that an increase in the incarceration rate does not translate into a decrease in crime rate. It found that "during the almost 20 years that the incarceration rate has been climbing, the crime rate, both overall and reported, has sometimes increased, sometimes decreased and sometimes stayed about the same."
Further, the Committee found that incarceration itself may be crime-provoking. "It may be that the experience of being incarcerated inculcates or solidifies anti-social attitudes and behavior and/or fosters such dependency that the likelihood of criminal behavior upon release is much greater for some people than if they had not been incarcerated," the report said.
Meanwhile, the Committee suggests, the costs to society are high. Experts have estimated that the average true cost of incarcerating one person is at least $30,000 a year," the report states. The report points to a Delaware study that found it took all of the state income tax paid by eighteen residents to pay the cost of keeping one person in prison for a year--taxes that could "not be used for education, health care, environmental protection, or the myriad of other services provided by the government."
The ABA report notes that in Wisconsin, "the money spent operating and financing the construction of a prison holding 1,000 prisoners for one year would pay for 11,000 children in the Head Start program. There are currently 30,000 children in that state eligible for the program who are excluded because of lack of funding."
The Committee notes that "as expenditures for prisons and jail have increased dramatically in recent years, other programs have suffered.... For example, while California added more prisoners than any other jurisdiction in 1990 to what was already the country's largest prison system, it cut funding to education by $2 billion."
The Committee spent three years examining available information, statistics and talking to those involved in the system. The report urges, based on ABA policy: State adoption of Community Corrections Acts; incorporation of prison impact statements in pending criminal law legislation; and elimination of mandatory minimum sentences.
The Committee recommends increased use of community-based sanctions such as intensive supervised probation, community service, day reporting centers, home confinement with and without electronic monitoring, restitution and means-based fines as viable alternatives to incarceration in appropriate cases.
Copes of the report are available for $8.75 by writing to Elizabeth M. Harth, ABA Criminal Justice Section, 1800 M Street NW, Second Floor, South Lobby, Washington, DC 20036.
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