Pubdate: Mon, 4 Jan 2010
Source: New York Times (NY)
Page: A20
Copyright: 2010 The New York Times Company
Referenced: The report "Michigan Breaks the Political Logjam: A New 
Model for Reducing Prison Populations"
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


The United States, which has less than 5 percent of the world's 
population, has about one-quarter of its prisoners. But the 
relentless rise in the nation's prison population has suddenly slowed 
as many states discover that it is simply too expensive to overincarcerate.

Between 1987 and 2007 the prison population nearly tripled, from 
585,000 to almost 1.6 million. Much of that increase occurred in 
states -- many with falling crime rates -- that had adopted overly 
harsh punishment policies, such as the "three strikes and you're out" 
rule and drug laws requiring that nonviolent drug offenders be locked away.

These policies have been hugely costly. According to the Pew Center 
on the States, state spending from general funds on corrections 
increased from $10.6 billion in 1987 to more than $44 billion in 
2007, a 127 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the 
same period, adjusted spending on higher education increased only 21 percent.

In 2008, the explosion of the prison population ground to a near 
halt, according to data released last month by the Bureau of Justice 
Statistics. About 739,000 inmates were admitted to federal and state 
facilities, only about 3,500 more than were released.

One factor seems to be tight budgets as states decide to release 
nonviolent offenders early. This can not only save money. If done 
correctly, it can also be very sound social policy. Many nonviolent 
offenders can be dealt with more effectively and more cheaply through 
treatment and jobs programs.

Michigan, which has been hard hit by the recession, has done a 
particularly good job of releasing people who do not need to be in 
prison. As the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison 
Project details in a new report, Michigan reduced its prison 
population by about 8 percent between March 2007 and November 2009 by 
taking smart steps, notably doing more to get nonviolent drug 
offenders out, while helping in their transition to a productive, and 
crime-free, life.

Not every state has gotten the message. Florida, for example, has a 
state law mandating that all prisoners serve a high percentage of 
their sentence, which is both dubious corrections policy and terrible 
fiscal policy.

For many years, driving up prison populations has been an easy thing 
for elected officials to do, popular with voters and powerful 
corrections officer unions. The new incarceration figures suggest, 
however, that in the current hard economic times, strapped states are 
beginning to realize that they do not have the money to keep people 
in prison who do not need to be there. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake