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Prisoner Education Guide

PEW Report: 1 in 99 Adult Americans Behind Bars In 2007

by John E. Dannenberg

The venerated PEW Center on the States reported in February 2008 that one in every 99.1 adult Americans was presently behind bars. For males between ages 20 and 34, the number is 1 in 30. Racially, the numbers are even more disturbing: one in 36 Hispanic adults is locked up, as is one in 15 black adults. The number increases to 1 in 9 for black males between the ages of 20 and 34, which portends a devastating discontinuity in familial upbringing and support for black children being raised by young single mothers. Indeed, the projection is that for male African-American babies born today, fully one in three will suffer incarceration at some time in their lives.

The report also studied female prisoner statistics. While only one in 355 white women between ages 35 and 39 is behind bars, the rate rises to 1 in 100 for black women of that age.

Across the nation, the prison population grew by 25,000 in 2007, bringing it to 1.6 million. Including the additional 723,000 ensconced in local jails, one in 130 of America’s 300 million people is thus incarcerated.

All of this imprisonment is costing states about 7% of their annual budgets. State spending varied widely, from $13,000 per prisoner in Louisiana to $45,000 in Rhode Island. The national average was $23,876. Overall, states spent $44 billion last year to lock up their citizens, skyrocketing from only $10.6 billion in 1987. And that does not include bond financing, which saddles future generations with reimbursement for today’s carceral cost excesses. By 2011, the report projected, the states would be throwing another $25 billion onto the $44 billion figure.

Because California’s prisons were full, and court orders resulted in 4,000 being transferred to out of state private prisons, the population fell to 170,000, dropping to #2 behind Texas’ 172,000. Both Texas and California are looking at options for alternative treatment for non-violent offenders to cut the population.

Many states have exorbitant “recidivism” rates. California tops them all, with a 70% rate of return to custody within three years. The large variance depends upon what constitutes “recidivism.” The normal definition implies parolees reoffending with new crimes. But this norm has been transmogrified by “tough on crime” California politicians and job-incentified state corrections workers into an artifact grounded in “technical” parole violations (e.g., late to a meeting). Thus, the number of “returns to custody” has been turned over to the discretion of those who most benefit from its increase. Indeed, while California’s prison population consisted of 50% technical parole violators in 2000, the fraction is down to about 25% today. The drop is attributed to longer sentences and fewer than 1% lifer paroles, leaving the fixed number of bed spaces more occupied by term-serving prisoners.

The PEW report proffered its own recommendations that would divert non-violent offenders from straight incarceration towards options aimed at rehabilitation. PEW encourages states to look into rehousing low-risk offenders in lower cost community-based facilities instead of formal prisons. Here, where prisoners would consist largely of parolees and probationers, the programs could include day-reporting centers, treatment facilities and community service. High on the list would be substance abuse treatment programs. The effect of being in these less rigid settings would be to aid in reintegration by keeping these people in contact with the real world while yet closely monitoring their daily progress. Cost savings would come from fewer fully incarcerated prisoners and from a reduction in recidivism, both true and artificial.

Failure to accomplish such programs would likely result in even higher annual prison budgets and in the social disaster attending ever-increasing incarceration rates in the “Land of the Free.” In any event, the continued exponential growth of the prison population is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. See: One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, PEW Center on the States (February 2008).

 

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