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Five-Year Forecast: Prison Population Will Swell 13%—Triple America’s Growth Rate

Five-Year Forecast: Prison Population Will Swell 13%?Triple America's Growth Rate

The charitably funded Washington D.C.-based Public Safety Performance Project (PSPP), statistically analyzing prison population trends in all 50 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), projected that between 2007 and 2011 the total prison population in the United States will grow by 192,023 to over 1.7 million men and women. This 13 percent increase (comprised of 12% for men and 16% for women) is three times the growth rate of the nation?s population. The U.S. will then have an incarceration rate of 562 felon prisoners per 100,000 population, or one out of every 178 Americans. (These figures are only for prisons, and do not include jails.)

Regionally, prison populations in the West, Midwest and South will lead the pack with up to 18% increases, while the Northeast will grow by only 7%. Growth rates will be highest in less-populated states: Montana, 41%; Arizona, 35%; Alaska, 34%; Idaho, 34%; Vermont, 33%; Colorado, 31%; Washington, 28%; Wyoming, 27%; Nevada, 27%; and Utah, 25%.

Incarceration rates (per 100,000 population) are spiking, too. Arizona?s will shoot from 590 to 747, while Nevada?s will surge from 540 to 640.

Louisiana has the dubious lead position of 835 -- projected to swell to 859 by 2011, [This could be an artifact: many displaced citizens abandoned Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, but Louisiana's prisoners didn't have the luxury of that choice.] At the other end of the spectrum, no state is projecting a decreased prisoner population, although Connecticut, Delaware, and New York anticipate no growth.

Incarceration costs are tracked by PSPP as well. Rhode Island suffers the highest per-prisoner costs ($44,860), followed by Massachusetts ($43,026) and New York ($42,202). The lowest costs are in the deep South, with Louisiana having $13,309; Alabama, $13,909; and South Carolina, $13,170.

Overall, the national expense of incarcerating prisoners is currently over $60 billion (California?s exceeds $10 billion alone). PSPP projects that the forecast 13% population growth will add another $27.5 billion in costs over the next five years, including $12 billion to build new beds.

PSPP also reviewed trends in the "results" of incarceration. It noted that over the past two decades, increased rates of incarceration have not caused a reduction in crime rates. Nor has any "correction" visibly occurred: the average national three-year recidivism rate remains at 50%.

Against this backdrop is every politician's hue and cry for "public safety." While no one argues that a policy of public safety should be dismissed as an unwise investment, the money spent on "corrections" is increasingly disproportionate to the competing primary societal needs of infrastructure, education, and healthcare.

The report notes the maxim of incarceration, "The size of a state's prison system is determined by two simple factors: how many people come in and how long they stay." It observes that in the past 30 years, many significant sentencing and corrections policies have had a significant impact on populations. These include the change from indeterminate to determinate sentencing, abolition of parole, lower parole grant rates where parole still exists, passage of "three-strikes" laws, and establishment of sentencing guidelines. Overlaying the population size per se is the graying of the prison population. Concomitant with longer sentences and trifling parole policies, the geriatric factor is driving housing and medical costs up faster than just the population numbers would foretell. Other population drivers include escalating methamphetamine-related crimes and the impact of enhanced sex- offender sentences.

PSPP summarizes by recognizing that policy makers must grapple with the cost-benefit analysis of incarceration. To this end, they need to know and plan for projected prison bed space, both as to security levels as well as to age/medical needs. For each of the states plus the BOP, PSPP has charted prison costs and populations with projections through 2011.

Perhaps one useful purpose of these sobering projections is that legislators might begin to turn their heads towards an incarceration model based upon actual correction and reintegration of prisoners, rather than the interminable but politically popular straight punishment model.

See: Public Safety, Public Spending, Forecasting America?s Prison Population 2007-2011, Public Safety Performance Project, the report is available on PLN?s website.

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