Pubdate: Tue, 16 Mar 1999
Source: Standard-Times (MA)
Copyright: 1999 The Standard-Times
Author:  Marc Mauer 
Note: is the assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a
         Washington-based research and advocacy group concerned with
criminal justice


WASHINGTON, D.C. The Department of Justice has just released new
figures on the national prison and jail population. There are now more
than 1.8 million Americans behind bars, nearly six times the number of
25 years ago. At the current rate of growth, more than two million
people will be incarcerated by the year 2000.

In recent years, the United States has been second only to Russia
among industrialized nations in its rate of incarceration, with both
nations imprisoning their citizens at rates five to eight times those
of the rest of the developed world. The new U.S. figures now place the
two nations in a virtual dead heat for the top spot.

In Russia, however, officials have determined that the high cost of
prisons has become untenable at a time of economic crisis. The
Ministry of Justice has proposed an amnesty of 100,000 inmates (about
10 percent of the prison population) who were originally sentenced to
unreasonably long terms, or who suffer from tuberculosis or other
health problems.

In the United States, where the economy is strong, there's been no
call to reconsider the policies that are bringing us our record rates
of incarceration. And so the post-Cold War race to imprison the most
citizens is one America will probably "win" pretty soon.

But how wise is that? Since the 1980s, every state has adopted some
form of mandatory sentencing, most often for drug offenses. Half the
states have also enacted a "three strikes and you're out" law,
requiring a sentence of up to life without parole for a third felony.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a California three-strikes
sentence of 25 years to life for a man convicted of stealing a $20
bottle of vitamins from a supermarket. These laws are filling our
prisons to overflow. And at an annual cost of $20,000 per inmate, they
also rob our treasuries of funds sorely needed for education and
economic development.

An examination of America's prison population demonstrates how
sensible it would be to reduce it. Here's how that could be achieved:

- -- Divert drug offenders to treatment. Nearly a quarter of all prison
and jail inmates in this country are locked up for drug offenses,
about 400,000 people.

Many of them -- more than a third of the drug offenders in federal
prison and presumably at least as many in state facilities -- were
low-level players in the drug trade and were not involved in any
violent activity. Locking them up achieves little in terms of crime

Such substance abusers should be diverted to treatment programs, which
are not only cheaper than prison, but can also address the underlying
drug addiction that leads to their crimes. A 1997 Rand study found
that a million dollars spent on drug treatment is eight times more
effective in reducing cocaine use than a million dollars spent on
incarceration -- and 15 times more effective in reducing serious crime.

- -- Reconsider mandatory sentencing. In Michigan, a 20-year-old state
law required a sentence of life without parole for the sale of 650
grams of cocaine, a little over a pound. The penalty was the same as
for first-degree murder, and it even applied to first-time offenders.
After more than 200 offenders were sentenced under this law, many of
them young and non-violent, the Republican-controlled legislature
changed the law last year to allow for parole after serving 15 years.

- -- Divert low-level property offenders. A study of inmates in
California by a University of California criminologist estimated that
a quarter of the offenders sentenced to prison could be diverted to
structured community-based supervision without any negative impact on
public safety. This group consists of offenders sent to prison for
technical violations of parole, minor drug use, and non-violent
property offenses. Nationally, more than half the prison population is
locked up for non-violent drug or property offenses.

Options for such offenders in the community include electronic house
arrest, intensive probation supervision, and substance abuse treatment
programs. Not only are these less costly than incarceration, but
studies have found that among people convicted of comparable crimes,
recidivism rates are no worse for those sentenced to community
programs than for those sent to prison.

In Russia, the government is undertaking its campaign to reduce the
prison population largely because it is running out of money. In the
United States we are not, but our economic strength shouldn't make us
less clear-eyed about our policies. If there's to be a competition
with Russia over crime, let's win it by being more effective, not by
locking up more prisoners.
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