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.