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From the Inside Looking Out

The late Malcom Forbes once said it was "more fun to arrive at a conclusion than to justify it." Brookings Institute senior fellow Dr. John J. DiIulio has certainly arrived at a conclusion, but his justifications range from questionable to outright hog wash. On closer examination, the reality of the prison yard is much different than the ruminations from the hallways of a conservative Washington think tank.

In a recent nationally disseminated editorial, DiIulio passionately advocated that what the country needs are more prisons. The foundation of his argument was summed up in the title of his op-ed piece, "Most In Prison Deserve To Be There."[1]

He initiates his argument by citing studies (two of which are conveniently his own) observing those in prison committed several crimes prior to their current incarceration and/or are not simply the first time drug offenders many lament over. In short, that by the multiplicity of their criminal histories they deserve to be behind bars for public safety considerations.

What DiIulio does not mention is that nearly two-thirds of state inmates have never been incarcerated before, nor have a majority of them convicted of a violent crime. Of the third who committed a violent act, for half of them it was their first arrest.[2] All told, less than 50 percent of all prisoners are there for committing violent crimes.[3]

Several classification studies have found that as few as 20 percent of the prison population are extreme violent offenders that must be incarcerated for extended periods of time.[4] A 1994 U.S. Senate survey revealed that prison wardens believe that on average "half of the offenders under their supervision would not be a danger to society if released."[5]

Additionally, criminologists John Irwin and James Austin's survey of 52,000 Americans regarding the level of seriousness of 204 criminal acts compared to the criminal histories of randomly selected inmates from three states, found that half were considered petty criminals, with only 20 percent being viewed as serious offenders.

"Rather than being vicious predators," Irwin and Austin note, "most were disorganized, unskilled undisciplined petty criminals who very seldom engaged in violence or made any significant money from their criminal acts."[6]

DiIulio next proclaims that prisoners are not doing a lot of hard time under horrible conditions. He states that despite the enactment of mandatory minimum laws between 1985 and 1992, "the average maximum sentence of prisoners declined about 15 percent." The problem with this is DiIulio is comparing total overall sentences imposed, not the amount of time actually served.

Over the past decade, the number of convicted drug offenders, with relatively shorter sentences when compared to violent offenders, sent to prison has tripled. This has skewed the overall average, thereby lowering the national sentence length. However, the actual amount of time served behind bars has grown tremendously, because of generally longer sentences for all crimes and reduced "good behavior" paroles.

Between 1985 and 1992, the number of months violent criminals served in prison increased 60 percent, property felons 66 percent, and drug offenders over 68 percent. And if the months served in jail awaiting sentencing were added, these figures would increase another 20 percent.[7] Furthermore, the chance of going to prison between 1980 and 1993 doubled for those convicted of car theft or sexual assault, quadrupled for weapon offenses, and saw a five-fold increase for drug violators.[8]

Regarding the conditions that prisoners exist in, as a whole, the U.S. prison system is in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.[9] Disturbingly, a recent a European commission found the American prison system to be the "most barbarous" among the western industrialized countries.[10] Not exactly the Michelin rating one would expect to receive if the nation's 1600 gulags were "Holiday Inns."

Thanks to new prison construction, DiIulio states, overcrowding has abated, with a dozen states now under maximum capacity. What he fails to mention is that 85 percent of corrections departments acknowledge that overcrowding in their systems still ranges from serious to critical.[11]

The Brookings fellow then has the temerity to claim that "half or more of each prison dollar is spent on inmate medical services and rehabilitation programs, not security basics." Balderdash! When he wrote that, DiIulio must have been smoking the "something" he accuses others of toking on when they disagree with him.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, 15 percent of state correction budgets in 1994-95 went toward rehabilitation programs and medical services. Nearly 60 percent went for security and maintenance operations.[12] Hardly the disbursement for plush amenities and luxurious conditions as the good doctor alludes.

The end result of building more prisons, as DiIulio urges, is a poorer and no safer society. The 30-year cost of building and operating one prison bed is $1.3 million.[13] Over the past sixteen years, we've tripled our prison population to over one million souls, at the expense of $32 billion in 1992 alone.[14] All at a cost of more pot holes in our streets, reduced times in our libraries and museums, and collectively more public money spent on prisons to incarcerate the populace than on universities to educate the citizenry.[15]

Meanwhile, crime rates have diminished only slightly. And the baby boomers aging out of their most criminal prone years is given most of the credit for that fact--not increased incarceration. Moreover, "there is no tendency for those [states] that increased their prison populations the most to have greater decreases in crime," observe Irwin and Austin. "In fact, the opposite is true."[16]

Concluding his opinion, DiIulio comments that the "truth of prisoners complete criminal histories will prevail with it setting very few free." One must wonder, however, whose truth he is promoting and why. Certainly it is not the view of the stark reality of America's prison system from the inside looking out.

[Jon Marc Taylor is a Missouri prisoner who narrates books for the blind.]

1. DiIulio, J. (1996) "Most In Prison Deserve To Be There," National Distribution.

2. Beck, A., et al. (1993) Survey of State Prison Inmates, 1991, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (March).

3. Gest, T. & Walsh, K. (1993) "When Will Washington ACT?" U.S. News & World Report, (July 19): 35-36.

4. Alexander, J. & Austin, J. (1992) Evaluating Prison Classification Systems, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections. California Department of Corrections (1986) Inmate Classification System Study: Final Report, Sacramento, CA.

5. United States Senate (1994) 'In New Survey Wardens Call for Smarter Sentencing, Alternatives to Incarceration, and Prevention Programs," (December 21), Washington, D.C.

6. Irwin, J. & Austin, J. (1994) It's About Time: America's Imprisonment Binge, Wadsworth Publishing Co: Belmont, CA.

7. Minor-Harper, S. and Perkins, C. (1990) National Corrections Reporting Program, 1985, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (December): NCJ-123522. Perkins, C. (1994) National Corrections Reporting Program, 1992, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (October): NCJ-145862.

8. Beck, A. & Gillard, D. (1995) Prisoners in 1994, U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, (August): NCJ-151654.

9. Jones, M. (1993) "U.S. Fails to Conform to International Human Rights Tenets," National Prison Project Journal--ACLU, V.8, #4, (October): 5, 6, 16.

10. Vidal, C. (1994) "The Union of the State," The Nation, (December): 789-91.

11. Wees, G. (1996) "Inmate Population Expected to Increase 43% by 2002," Corrections Compendium, Vol. XXI, #4, (April): 1-4.

12. Maguire, K. & Pastore, A. (eds.) (1995) Bureau of Justice Statistics Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics--1994, U.S. Department of Justice, NCJ-154591: 14.

13. Norman, J. (1994) "Crime," Corpus Christi Caller-Times, (April 17): A10.

14. Meddis, S. & Sharp, D. (1994) "As Spending Soars, So Do The Profits," USA Today, (December 13).

15. Brazaitis, T. (1993) "Americans Brutalized by Crime Statistics," Cleveland Plain Dealer, (August 22).

16. Irwin and Austin.

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