The juvenile justice system is beset by major societal forces and does not lack for critics. Several paths are available to guide the future of the juvenile justice system. One direction would amplify the current expansion of punishment and of "holding youth and families more accountable for their misdeeds." An alternative approach entails rediscovering the historic mission of juvenile justice to provide individualized and compassionate care for delinquent youths. The punitive direction fits with current political rhetoric about "getting tough" with criminals. The doubling of the prison population and the large growth in juvenile incarceration are products of the "hard line" approach. Paradoxically, the urge to punish has not matched with public support to raise taxes to pay for a more vengeful justice system. Consequently, conditions of confinement are worsening, challenging basic American values about cruel and unusual punishment
According to the National Council and Crime and Delinquency (NCCD), prison populations will increase by 35 percent over the next five years under the current criminal justice policies. This rate of growth is significantly lower than NCCD's 1989 estimates of a 60 percent increase over five years. The principal reason for the lower growth rate is a 20 percent reduction in drug arrests, which in turn is reducing projected jail and prison admissions. The declining number of drug arrests are related to the fiscal crisis of state and local governments, drug asset and seizure laws, and lower drug use. However, prison populations will continue to grow despite reductions in admissions due to the passage of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes and lengthier prison terms for certain crimes. Assuming that the 16 states researched are representative of trends that are on-going in other states and the Federal Prison System, the nation's prison population will reach 1 million inmates by 1994.
Over the past decade, interest in community-based corrections for juveniles has grown while dissatisfaction with the expense and ineffectiveness of training schools has increased. Since 1985, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency has investigated technologies that would make a shift from juvenile justice systems plagued with over-incarceration to those emphasizing community-based care. The application of a public-safety risk assessment instrument to Louisiana juvenile offenders revealed that substantial numbers of youth could be safely managed in well-run community programs. This risk assessment technology, together with accurate, policy sensitive, population forecasting and an intensive review of existing community programs, can substantially assist administrators in moving toward more effective juvenile correctional systems.
When attempting to answer questions such as what proportion of our nation's juvenile population will be taken into custody of state juvenile corrections systems or how does the probability of those same juveniles differ for males and females and for different ethnic and racial groups, a measure of "prevalence" must be applied. Prevalence refers to the estimated proportion of the at-risk population of juveniles based on several age, race, and sex population subgroups, who are likely to be committed to the custody of state juvenile corrections systems by age 18. Until recently, there was no national data reporting system that recorded on an individual basis, the number and characteristics of youth admitted to juvenile corrections facilities. With the newly implemented State Juvenile Corrections System Reporting Program, we can now generate estimates of prevalence rates for state custody. These results clearly indicate that the problem of minority over-representation in our juvenile custody population is much greater than previously thought and intensifies the already urgent need to comprehend the problem and address this apparent disparity.
During the past five years, Florida has embarked on a policy of incarcerating massive numbers of drug offenders. This policy has accelerated an increase in usage of early release, not only for drug offenders, but also for inmates convicted of violent crimes and those with violent criminal histories. Florida today has the highest rate of prison admissions and the shortest length of stay of any prison system in the country. In addition, its already high crime rate has not been reduced but has increased slightly. A more cost-effective alternative, which the state could utilize, would be placing prison admissions in less expensive and more effective community based programs. Such a policy would result in initiating necessary levels of supervisions and services that many drug offenders and other inmates require, reduce costs to taxpayers, and increase public safety.
America faces an enormous public policy dilemma. On one hand we are expending a greater portion of our public dollars on incarcerating, punishing, treating, and controlling persons who are primarily from the lower economic classes in a futile effort to reduce crime. On the other hand, we have set in motion economic policies that serve to widen the gap between the rich and the poor and produce yet another generation of impoverished youths who will likely end up under the control of the correctional system. By escalating the size of the correctional system, we are also increasing the tax burden and diverting billions of dollars from those very public services (education, health, transportation, and economic development) that would reduce poverty, unemployment, crime, drug abuse, and mental illness. Until the long-term consequences of such a controversial and deliberating public policy are recognized and reversed, the hope for a "kinder and gentler" America will be yet another "unmet promise."
During 1987, approximately 340,000 persons were sent to state and federal prisons. The public, influenced by news stories of exceptionally violent crimes and politicians' rhetoric, believe that all of these prisoners are dangerous and should serve lengthy prison terms. However, the facts suggest otherwise. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency's (NCCD) research has shown that the vast majority of inmates are sentenced for petty crimes such as minor property offenses, minor drug violations, and public disorder. Our nation spends an exorbitant amount of money each year (nearly $7 billion in 1986) to warehouse petty criminals. Instead of escalating the use of expensive and largely ineffective prison sanctions, NCCD suggests that alternative options should be launched that will reduce taxpayer costs, increase restitution to victims, and help ensure that these prisoners will not return to a life of petty crime.
The United States, now with more than 625,000 inmates in prison, has long been recognized as a country that imprisons a large portion of its population. Since 1980, the nation's imprisonment rate has nearly doubled. Presently, over 40 states are under some form of litigation related to crowding or unconstitutional conditions of confinement. As states respond to the pressure of overcrowding, more attention is being paid to comparing states in terms of their use of other forms of control in addition to prisons. States are also concerned with the high costs of these systems. State and federal prison population data, the most obvious means of calculating comparative imprisonment rates, reflect only a single component of a jurisdiction's correctional system and exclude other far reaching forms of incarceration and control, including jails, juvenile facilities, and parole and probation. For these reasons, the domain of prison control must be evaluated in relation to the control exercised by other correctional control systems. If our objective as a nation is to lower crime rates and produce safer communities, these facts argue for a re-examination of a strategy which relies largely on an increasingly expensive and expansive system of punishment and control.
It's About Time: Solving America's Prison Crowding Crisis
The United States has embarked on an unprecedented incarceration binge. Since the last decade our nation's prison population has more than doubled. Billions of dollars are being allocated to construct tens of thousands of new cells in a futile effort to catch up with the increasing prison populations. But despite this historic prison construction program, state prison systems will continue to be overcrowded. If we are serious about solving the crowding problem we must come to grips with its true causes and the most direct solution to the problem. We need to re-examine how much time is enough for which offenders within the resources available to our state agencies. And we must ask ourselves if we truly want a society that imprisons an increasing proportion of its black, Hispanic, and disadvantaged citizens with no improvement to public safety. It's about time we chart a different course. This book is available here.