Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An Idea Whose Time Has Passed -- Prison Population Explosion (Part 2)

Following up on the last post, consider the excellent analysis on the Mississippi Criminal Defense Law Blog, discussing the American Bar Association's latest report on prison policy. The blog post is here:

Blogger Kevin Frye quotes this salient portion of the ABA's report:

At midyear 2007, U.S. prisons and jails held 2,299,116 inmates, meaning more than 1 percent of American adults were incarcerated. We top the world in per capita imprisonment, increasing our lead every year. Since 2000, while the total U.S. population increased by 7 percent, our prison population has grown by 19 percent. Our massive imprisonment costs needless billions and, perversely, hinders effective crime control.

A rational criminal justice system would—while shortening sentences of certain offenders—keep others out of prison altogether. With alternative treatments and punishments, a state shrinks its prison budget, allows convicts to keep their jobs and support their families, and makes recidivism less likely.

But alternative programs work only when properly funded. A state spending every dollar on prisons may think it cannot afford drug treatment programs and fully staffed probation offices, especially when the economy demands budget cuts. The opposite is true: States cannot afford to neglect these programs or they will pay down the road tenfold—in prison costs, welfare budg­ets and elsewhere. Beyond monetary costs, cit­izens will suffer needless increased crime when of­fenders who never belonged behind bars eventually return to the community more dangerous than before.

Kevin Frye has previously posted an excellent analysis of sentencing trends and costs here in Mississippi. That full post is here:

Frye cites the MDOC's fiscal 2007 budget report: (, and points out:

Housing an inmate at Parchman costs $45.48 per day, while the Intensive Supervision Program (house arrest) costs just $9.96 per day. Clearly a cost savings of $35.52 per day (Yes, I did the math for you.) is substantial. The cost difference between housing an inmate for one year in Parchman versus one year on house arrest? $12,964.80.

If I understand the MDOC report correctly, in the 2007 fiscal year, Mississippi incarcerated 19,824 prisoners at a total operations cost of $283,419,954. That is a staggering cost.

Many people believe that the increase in incarceration is from the change to "truth-in-sentencing" laws that eliminated the possibility of parole. The American Law Institute's Consultation Group for the revised Model Penal Code: Sentencing, on which I participate, thinks the statistics do not bear this out.

The real problem is this: after "truth-in-sentencing" was enacted, judges continued to use the same length of sentences as they did when parole was available. That was never the purpose of that reform. Previously, a person convicted of aggravated assault who was sentenced to 20 years was eligible for parole in 5. That prisoner would likely be released between years 5 and 10. With "truth-in-sentencing," judges are afraid to "reduce" the length of the sentences they gave before, so the agg. assault defendant gets 20 years to serve. That's what drives increases in long-term incarceration.

At the same time, we accept as a commonplace that prison does the opposite of rehabilitation: it creates a graduate program in crime, increases the hostility of prisoners to society, and does little to prepare them to cope with freedom (which most of them will, ultimately, achieve).

Does it have to be this way? Of course not. The model of rehabilitation is the addiction services programs that have been in existence since "Bill W" founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Sure, maybe that rehabilitates only 40-50% of addicts. But isn't that a much higher success rate than incarceration?

As a starter toward real reform, why not increase the use of drug courts in Mississippi? They use an addiction-recovery model instead of the failed incarceration model. But adjust the current practice of sentencing addicts who fail to recover to the maximum punishment. There's no need for that -- an addict facing being sent to jail or prison for six months to a year would have sufficient incentive to follow through with the recovery program. More than that just turns an addict into a career criminal.

Just a thought.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have you seen this?