Pubdate: Sat, 05 Apr 2003
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2003 The State
Author: Allen G. Breed, Associated Press


Principal Sheila Young says the family portrait drawn by one of her 
brightest New Orleans third-graders was disturbing: There, next to the 
smiling faces of the girl and her eight siblings was a frowning woman, 
their mother, with vertical bars over her face.

"I ran to get the social worker, because it's such an exaggerated frown," 
says Young, whose Craig Elementary School is in one of the city's poorest 
neighborhoods. "It was frightening."

That's when Young learned that the girl's crack-addicted mother was serving 
a year for a parole violation. When Young asked the girl's classmates how 
many of them had a family member or neighbor in prison, more than half the 
hands shot up.

When it comes to locking people up, Louisiana leads the South. And the 
South leads the nation.

Since 1980, the country's prison population has quadrupled to 2.1 million, 
with the South accounting for 45 percent of that increase, according to a 
report released Friday by the grassroots group Critical Resistance South.

Citizen activists from around the region plan to converge on New Orleans 
and Craig Elementary for a weekend conference to address the situation and 
brainstorm about how to change it.

At a time when nearly every state is facing crushing deficits, Rose Braz 
believes prison beds are a good place to start cutting.

"I do think this is a unique opportunity for states to re-examine their 
spending priorities," says Braz, national director for Critical Resistance. 
"We have a limited amount of money that is getting smaller by the minute. 
Do we want to invest in prisons, prisons and more prisons?"

Louisiana's incarceration rate is 800 per 100,000 residents. The rate for 
the South is 526 per 100,000 - higher than that of 63 percent of countries 
in the world, according to the report generated for the group by the 
Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. The West is a distant second 
at 408 per 100,000.

Thirteen of the top 20 states with the highest incarceration rates are in 
the South. And while the rate of incarceration for women has grown 
nationally, the South outpaced the nation by 17 percent.

Why are the region's numbers so high?

Some would argue that Southern states have spent less money for the kinds 
of social programs that tend to keep people off the path to prison.

"The South historically has had either less money available or less 
political interest in making those investments," says Marc Mauer, assistant 
director of The Sentencing Project. "And so, by default, prison is an 
option that becomes more widely used because of that."

A recent national survey conducted by a group of Florida State University 
researchers found that Southerners were more politically conservative and 
racially prejudiced in their attitudes than people in other regions, and, 
more punitive.

"What we find ... is the more people define crime as a black issue, the 
more punitive they're willing to be," says criminologist and study 
co-author Ted Chiricos.

Prison populations soared through the past two decades as states got tough 
on crime, with so-called "three strikes you're out" and "truth in 
sentencing" measures that guaranteed repeat offenders long stays. But as 
crime rates have fallen, many states in the South and elsewhere have 
attempted to cut their prison populations.

In the past two years, Louisiana and Mississippi - which has the 
second-highest lockup rate - have backed away from mandatory minimum 
sentences for certain offenders. Georgia, which ranks sixth in its lockup 
rate, is considering moving toward sentencing guidelines, which seek to 
divert nonviolent offenders into community-based programs.

Partly as a result of these measures, the South's incarceration rate has 
grown slower than the other regions' over the past 20 years - 180 percent. 
The West saw the highest growth, 289 percent, according to the JPI report.

Mississippi's new corrections commissioner, Christopher Epps, says his 
prisoner population grew by a net 912 prisoners last year, instead of the 
1,500 it had been averaging in the 1990s. He gives some of the credit to a 
new law that set parole eligibility dates for 7,000 inmates.

"I have 20,000 locked up and 21,000 in the community," Epps says. "It's 
like running a race."

Faced with a looming $400 million shortfall, Kentucky recently granted 
early release to about 900 inmates.

South Carolina's corrections department is considering releasing up to 
4,000 inmates, and Arkansas' governor wants to put more drug violators in 
treatment programs. Nearly half of Louisiana's 36,000 prisoners have 
applied for an early out under a new law that was supposed to save $3 
million a year; only a handful have been released so far.

"I would argue that high incarceration rates are not terribly 
cost-effective," Mauer says. "But many of those arguments have not been 
persuasive in most of those states until the budget crunch hit."

Florida is one state that still isn't persuaded.

Gov. Jeb Bush has forged ahead with 25-year-to-life mandatory terms for sex 
criminals and guaranteed 10-year sentences for people carrying guns during 
the commission of a crime. He is seeking $75 million for prison 
construction projects, even though the system currently has empty beds.

Corrections Department spokesman Sterling Ivey says Florida's crime rate is 
the lowest it's been in 30 years, and Gov. Bush isn't about to start 
releasing people just to balance a budget.

"I don't see us backing away from those initiatives," Ivey says. "Because 
whenever you keep people locked up in prison, they're not committing crimes 
in our communities."

But one Southern state, North Carolina, has had success with alternatives 
to locking people up.

In 1980, North Carolina had the highest incarceration rate in the country, 
244 per 100,000. Today, it ranks 31st, with a rate that's grown just 37 
percent in the past 20 years - the slowest in the nation.

Dan Wilhelm of the Vera Institute of Justice gives much of the credit to 
the decision in 1994 to switch to sentencing guidelines, or structured 
sentencing. He says the result was a system that simultaneously "increased 
the likelihood and length" of sentences for violent offenders, while 
establishing "a continuum of community punishments for nonviolent offenders."

With crime rates down and corrections budgets among the highest-growth 
areas of state spending, Wilhelm says policy makers from both sides of the 
political aisle can agree on the need for prison reform.

"There's an opportunity right now for changes to be made," he says. 
"Because there's a common interest that's brought these unlikely bedfellows 
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens