Prison numbers may see 1st drop since early '70s
Changes due to tight budgets a factor
by Jeff Carlton
Dec. 20, 2009 12:00 AM
DALLAS - The United States may soon see its prison population drop for the first time in almost four decades, a milestone in a nation that locks up more people than any other.
The inmate population has risen steadily since the early 1970s as states adopted get-tough policies that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer. But tight budgets now have states rethinking these policies and the costs that come with them.
"It's a reversal of a trend that's been going on for more than a generation," said David Greenberg, a sociology professor at New York University. "In some ways, it's overdue."
The U.S. prison population dropped steadily during most of the 1960s, and there were a few small dips in 1970 and 1972. But it has risen every year since, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
About 739,000 prisoners were admitted to state and federal facilities last year, about 3,500 more than were released, according to new figures from the bureau. The 0.8 percent growth in the prison population is the smallest annual increase this decade and significantly less than the 6.5 percent average annual growth of the 1990s.
Overall, there were 1.6 million prisoners in state and federal prisons at the end of 2008.
In the past, prison populations have been lower when drafts were enacted, including during the wars in Korea and Vietnam.
"People who go to war are young men, and young men are the most likely to get arrested or prosecuted," said James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, a research organization that advises states on prison issues.
The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven't involved a draft.
Instead, the economic crisis forced states to reconsider whom they put behind bars and how long they kept them there, said Kim English, research director for the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.
In Texas, parole rates were once among the lowest in the nation, with as few as 15 percent of inmates being released as recently as five years ago. Now, the parole rate is more than 30 percent after Texas began identifying low-risk candidates for parole.
In Mississippi, a truth-in-sentencing law required drug offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences. That's been reduced to less than 25 percent.
California's budget problems are expected to result in the release of 37,000 inmates in the next two years. The state also is under a federal court order to shed 40,000 inmates because its prisons are so overcrowded that they are no longer constitutional, Austin said.
States are looking at ways to keep people from entering prison. A nationwide system of drug courts takes first-time felony offenders caught with less than a gram of illegal drugs and sets up a monitoring team to help with case management and therapy.
Studies have touted significant savings with drug courts, saying they cost 10 percent to 30 percent less than it costs to send someone to prison.
"I don't think they work. I know so," said Judge John Creuzot, a state district judge in Dallas.
Retiring Arizona Prison Watch...
This site was originally started in July 2009 as an independent endeavor to monitor conditions in Arizona's criminal justice system, as well as offer some critical analysis of the prison industrial complex from a prison abolitionist/anarchist's perspective. It was begun in the aftermath of the death of Marcia Powell, a 48 year old AZ state prisoner who was left in an outdoor cage in the desert sun for over four hours while on a 10-minute suicide watch. That was at ASPC-Perryville, in Goodyear, AZ, in May 2009.
Marcia, a seriously mentally ill woman with a meth habit sentenced to the minimum mandatory 27 months in prison for prostitution was already deemed by society as disposable. She was therefore easily ignored by numerous prison officers as she pleaded for water and relief from the sun for four hours. She was ultimately found collapsed in her own feces, with second degree burns on her body, her organs failing, and her body exceeding the 108 degrees the thermometer would record. 16 officers and staff were disciplined for her death, but no one was ever prosecuted for her homicide. Her story is here.
Marcia's death and this blog compelled me to work for the next 5 1/2 years to document and challenge the prison industrial complex in AZ, most specifically as manifested in the Arizona Department of Corrections. I corresponded with over 1,000 prisoners in that time, as well as many of their loved ones, offering all what resources I could find for fighting the AZ DOC themselves - most regarding their health or matters of personal safety.
I also began to work with the survivors of prison violence, as I often heard from the loved ones of the dead, and learned their stories. During that time I memorialized the Ghosts of Jan Brewer - state prisoners under her regime who were lost to neglect, suicide or violence - across the city's sidewalks in large chalk murals. Some of that art is here.
In November 2014 I left Phoenix abruptly to care for my family. By early 2015 I was no longer keeping up this blog site, save occasional posts about a young prisoner in solitary confinement in Arpaio's jail, Jessie B.
I'm deeply grateful to the prisoners who educated, confided in, and encouraged me throughout the years I did this work. My life has been made all the more rich and meaningful by their engagement.
I've linked to some posts about advocating for state prisoner health and safety to the right, as well as other resources for families and friends. If you are in need of additional assistance fighting the prison industrial complex in Arizona - or if you care to offer some aid to the cause - please contact the Phoenix Anarchist Black Cross at PO Box 7241 / Tempe, AZ 85281. firstname.lastname@example.org
until all are free -
MARGARET J PLEWS (June 1, 2015)