Pubdate: Sun,  1 Jun 2003
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Contact:  2003 The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.
Author: Scott Shane


Inmates: The United States has surpassed Russia as the nation with the
highest percentage of citizens behind bars.

With a record-setting 2 million people locked up in American jails and
prisons, the United States has overtaken Russia and has a higher
percentage of its citizens behind bars than any other country.

Today the United States imprisons at a far greater rate not only than
other developed Western nations do, but also than impoverished and
authoritarian countries do

Those are the latest dreary milestones resulting from a two-decade
imprisonment boom that experts say has probably helped reduce crime
but has also created ballooning costs and stark racial inequities.
Overseas, U.S. imprisonment policy is widely seen as a blot on a
society that prides itself on valuing liberty and just went to war to
overturn Saddam Hussein's despotic rule in Iraq.

"Why, in the land of the free, should 2 million men, women and
children be locked up?" asks Andrew Coyle, director of the
International Centre for Prison Studies at the University of London
and a leading authority on incarceration. When he discusses crime and
punishment with foreign colleagues, Coyle says, the United States is
such an anomaly that it must often be left out of the discussion.
"People say, 'Well, that's the United States.' They see the U.S. as
standing entirely on its own," he says. The latest statistics support
that view. The new high of 2,019,234, announced by the Justice
Department in April, underscores the extraordinary scale of
imprisonment in the United States compared with that in most of the

During the 1990s, the United States and Russia vied for the dubious
position of the highest incarceration rate on the planet.

But in the past few years, Russian authorities have carried out
large-scale amnesties to ease crowding in disease-infested prisons,
and the United States has emerged unchallenged into first place, at
702 prisoners per 100,000 population. Russia has 665 prisoners per
100,000. Today the United States imprisons at a far greater rate not
only than other developed Western nations do, but also than
impoverished and authoritarian countries do. On a per capita basis,
according to the best available figures, the United States has three
times more prisoners than Iran, four times more than Poland, five
times more than Tanzania and seven times more than Germany.

Maryland has more citizens in prison and jail (an estimated 35,200)
than all of Canada (31,600), though Canada's population is six times
greater. "This is a pretty serious experiment we've been engaged in,"
says Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute, a
Washington think tank that supports alternatives to prison. "I don't
think history will judge us kindly." Bruce Western, a sociologist at
Princeton University, says sentencing policies have had a glaringly
disproportionate impact on black men.

The Justice Department reports that one in eight black men in their
20s and early 30s were behind bars last year, compared with one in 63
white men. A black man has a one-in-three chance of going to prison,
the department says. For black male high school dropouts, Western
says, the numbers are higher: 41 percent of black dropouts between
ages 22 and 30 were locked up in 1999. "I think this is one of the
most important developments in race relations in the last 30 years,"
he says.

Some conservative analysts say that however regrettable the prison
boom has been, it's working.

It's no anomaly that the prison population is still rising despite a
decade-long fall in the national crime rate, they say, but rather
cause and effect. "If you put someone in prison, you can be sure
they're not going to rob you," says David B. Muhlhausen, a policy
analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "Quality research shows that ...
increasing incarceration decreases crime." Considering that there are
still about 12 million serious crimes a year, Muhlhausen says, "maybe
we're not incarcerating enough people."

Miscreants have been locked up for centuries, but today's prisons are
the legacy of 19th-century reformers' desire to rehabilitate
wrongdoers rather than punish them with whipping, dunking in water or
being displayed in public stocks. Quaker influence was behind the
creation in 1829 of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, often
considered the first modern American prison.

It took a century and a half, until 1980, to reach 500,000

Then, in slightly more than 20 years, the prison and jail population
grew by 1.5 million.

A major cause of the increase is the war on drugs.

In 1980, says Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project
in Washington, about 40,000 Americans were locked up solely for drug

Now the number is 450,000, three-fourths of them black or Hispanic,
although drug use is no higher in those groups than among whites.
"Drug abuse cuts across class and race," says Mauer, author of Race to
Incarcerate. "But drug law enforcement is focused on low-income

Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University, says
locking up drug dealers does not necessarily reduce their number,
because new recruits quickly take their place.

The well-established penal theory of "incapacitation," Blumstein says,
dictates that "if a guy's committing 10 crimes a year and you lock him
up for two years, you've prevented 20 crimes," Blumstein says. "That
works for rape and robbery.

But with drugs, there's a resilient market out there.

The incarceration of drug offenders is largely an exercise in
futility." A second major reason for the rise in imprisonment is the
politically popular shift to longer sentences with mandatory minimums,
"three-strikes" laws and "truth-in-sentencing" measures to eliminate
early parole. "Since the 1970s, there's been a growing politicization
of punishment policy," Blumstein says. "It's the 30-second sound bite
of the prison door slamming, with the implicit promise, 'Vote for me
and I'll slam the door.'" A tough stance on sentencing usually wins
votes, whether or not it ultimately reduces crime.

Blumstein says the most rigorous recent studies suggest that about 25
percent of the drop in crime in recent years resulted from locking up
more criminals. The rest resulted from other factors, among them the
ebbing of the crack cocaine epidemic, changed policing strategies and
the strong economy of the 1990s. Now, with many state budgets in
crisis, there are hints of a turnaround. Justice Department figures
show that nine states reduced their prison populations last year,
including Texas, Illinois and New York. The number of prisoners was
still rising in far more states, including Maryland, where the prison
population - excluding jails - has more than tripled since 1980, to
about 24,000. But many governors and legislators are wondering whether
they can afford to house more and more offenders at an average of
$25,000 a year apiece.

"Even some of your more right-wing people are saying, 'Let's see what
we can do to get some people out of prison to save some money,'" says
Reginald A. Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of
Rehabilitation and Correction and president of the association of
state prison chiefs.

Like many prison professionals, Wilkinson says, "I always thought we
locked up too many people." He says he's taking advantage of the
budget squeeze to push for cheaper alternatives. Ohio's state prison
population has fallen from its 1998 high of 49,000 to 45,000, and two
prisons have been closed, he says.

In Maryland, there's no talk of closing prisons.

Major expansions are planned or under way at North Branch Correctional
Institution near Cumberland and Eastern Correctional Institution on
the Eastern Shore to add 396 beds to the crowded system. "Maryland
would seem to be stuck in neutral," says Judith A. Greene, a senior
fellow at the Justice Policy Institute who has tracked the beginning
of a turnaround in other states.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his secretary of public safety and
correctional services, Mary Ann Saar, have said they want to use drug
treatment and closer supervision of parolees to keep former offenders
from returning to prison.

Saar's planned programs "all have the goal of getting people out of
prison and keeping them out," says Mark A. Vernarelli, director of
public information for the department of public safety.

Still, he adds, given the steady flow of prisoners sent by the courts,
"we maintain a constant vigil for land for new prisons."
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