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1 in Every 31 Adults Under Some Form of Correctional Restraint

by David M. Reutter

A 2008 report by the Pew Center on the States reported that for the first time that 1 in every 100 adults in the United States was confined behind bars.

In a March 2009 report, the Pew Center found that when you combine those behind bars with those on parole or probation there are 7.3 million adults under some form of correctional control. This amounts to 1 in every 31 adults in the nation.

The latest report, which will be reviewed here, details the incarceration rate for each state, looks at how money has been used to grow the nation’s prison system, the impact on public safety, and provides a strategy for safety and savings.

“The explosive prison growth of the past 30 years didn’t happen by accident, and it wasn’t driven primarily by crime rates or broad social and economic forces beyond the reach of state government,” states the report. “It was the direct result of sentencing, release, and other correctional policies that determine who goes to prison and how long they stay there.”

While the number of those in jail or prison grew by 274 percent over the last 25 years, the number of those under community supervision “grew by a staggering 3,535,660 to a total of 5.1 million.” Race and gender reveal stark differences in those under supervision.

The report found that 1 in 11 blacks are under some sort of correctional control while Hispanics represent 1 in 27 and whites 1 in 45. While 1 in 89 women are under restraint, 1 in 18 men are on a public restraint.

Southern states had higher rates, with Georgia being the worst, having 1 in every 13 people on some type of correctional control. The lowest rates were in rural and northeastern states. The overall rate may be even higher than the average of 1 in 31 due to “a hidden population supervised pre-trial, by drug courts or alternative sentencing units, and other specialized pro-grams.” One estimate puts this at 1 million people, and another 100,000 offenders are in U.S. Territories, Immigration and Customs facilities, and juvenile facilities.

Nationwide, 20-year correctional spending has jumped 303% to an estimated $52 billion yearly. Only Medicaid spending has outpaced prisons. Despite community corrections experiencing huge growth, 88% of corrections spending has been directed toward prisons.

The report finds this is a huge mistake that brings lower public safety returns. It finds that while increased imprisonment rates have lowered crime rates to a degree, we are now at a point of diminishing returns. Scholars find that imprisonment is useful to avert crime at rates between 111 and 207 per 100,000, but we are now at a rate of 506 per 100,000.

There are three forces why increased imprisonment decreases returns at certain limits: 1) the “replacement effect” draws more people into criminal lifestyles by creating jobs; 2) as offenders age they give up their criminal ways, making lengthy sentences costly while imprisoning those who are no longer a danger; and 3) the deterrence effect of more severe sanctions does little to serve the greatest deterrent: certainty and swiftness of sanctions for criminals and supervision violators.

New York proved that “states can carefully reduce incarceration and still protect – and even improve – public safety.” Be-tween 1997 and 2007, New York reduced its prison population 9.4% and saw its crime rate drop 40% over that period. This is in stark contrast to the national average of the prison population rising 28% while crime dropped 24% over the same pe-riod.

Finally, the report finds that community corrections can not only increase public safety, but save money by lowering the recidivism rates. This requires lawmakers to not only make a fiscal investment, but the implementation of a framework for less crime at a lower cost. The report examines six key components: sort offenders by risk to public safety, base intervention pro-grams on science, harness technology, impose swift and certain sanctions, create incentives for success, and measure progress.

The report concludes that we are in a rare moment of time that finds budget crunches and a growing acknowledgement that there exists a “massive, expensive and underperforming correctional system in America.” It calls for states to reexamine their systems and to “learn from its failings and build upon its success.”

The March 2009 report, Pew Center on the States’ One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, is available on PLN’s website.

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