Recently legislators, taxpayers, and criminal justice professionals have been taking a stand against the high cost of incarceration in the US. More than 2.2. million people are serving jail and prison sentences—a dramatic increase from the 1960s, when only 0.1% of the US population was incarcerated. Approximately 1 in every 31 Americans is in jail, in prison, or on probation or parole. The yearly cost for one federal inmate ranges from $21,000 to $33,000, depending on the prison’s level of security. The annual price tag for all US prisons exceeds $60 billion a year, and that figure does not include the cost of police and courts. Some experts place the total cost as high as $215 billion.
Where are all these criminals coming from? Decreasing crime rates suggest that incarceration statistics should be declining, not increasing. Critics of the current system point to excessive drug offenses and long mandatory sentences. For example, about half of the nation’s more than 218,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes, and most were subjected to some form of mandatory minimum sentencing.
In the quest for more cost-effective ways to manage our prisons, experts have been focusing their attention on California’s prison realignment program. In the 2011 Brown v. Plata case, the Supreme Court declared that overcrowding in California’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment, which protects inmates against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court was especially concerned that California’s inmates were receiving inadequate medical and mental health care. The Court ruled that California had to decrease its prison population from 156,000 inmates to 110,000.
California responded by passing the Public Safety Realignment Act, which redistributed many inmates to local county jails and empowered sheriffs to make sentencing decisions. Criminal justice experts hoped the shift to community-based programs would reduce both recidivism and criminal justice costs.
But neither result has been seen in California. According to the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPL), California broke its promise to shift only low-risk offenders to county probation departments. Less than two percent of the offenders have been low risk, while over 60 percent have been very high or high risk, and 37 percent have been medium risk. The LAPL adds that the budget of the California Department of Corrections increased rather than decreasing, as promised—to the tune of $200 million after realignment.
The Sacramento Bee recently published data showing that about 60 percent of parolees released to counties from October 2011 through September 2012 were arrested for new offenses within 12 months of leaving prison—a discouraging 12% increase in recidivism. Alarmingly, 16 percent of new arrests for county parolees were for violent crimes, including 41 murders.
What went wrong? Observers point to four problems. First, limited jail space for parole violators meant that counties ended up releasing inmates early. Second, many inmates were assigned to overworked probation officers already struggling with excessive caseloads. Third, funding for community-based recidivism programs was woefully underfunded. Most seriously, California’s realignment program did not target the populations most likely to end up in prison: Latinos and African Americans (roughly 67%) and city residents (for example, 60% are from Los Angeles). Although poverty has been strongly linked to crime in California, prison realignment did not address low wages and unemployment.
The problems in California underline an apparently unresolvable contradiction: Solutions to prison overcrowding inevitably end up increasing prison populations and driving up prison costs. But some observers believe that California could decrease its prison population and save money by adopting practical sentencing reforms. For example, Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB) has suggested decriminalizing drug possession, reducing sentences for youth, and preventing excessive sentences.
In the past, such suggestions might have sparked debates between tough-on-crime conservatives and bleeding-heart liberals. But concerns about criminal justice costs have begun to unite Republicans and Democrats in a quest for a nationwide solution. In 2010 a bipartisan coalition in Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced a disparity between crack-related sentences and sentences for other drugs, though it only addressed new cases, not old ones. Now liberals Patrick Leahy and Dick Durbin have teamed up with conservatives Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul to support the Smarter Sentencing Act (also called the Durbin-Lee bill), which would reduce sentences for non-violent drug offenders and give judges greater leeway in sentencing.
Supporters of the bill argue that lengthy mandatory sentences are ineffective, enormously expensive, and unfair to minorities. They propose reducing the severity of mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses and allowing judges to use their discretion when sentencing lower-level drug offenders. President Barack Obama and his Cabinet have already called attention to the issue of mandatory sentences, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders. Supporters for the Smarter Sentencing Act come from across the ideological spectrum and include Heritage Action for America, the American Bar Association, the NAACP, and the American Civil Liberties Union.
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of ten books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes the Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book Criminal Justice Report Writing. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.