‘It’s amazing how many have a family member, or know someone, who’s had
SUE URAHN TALKS TO KATE FILLION ABOUT HOW ONE IN EVERY 178 AMERICANS WILL SOON LIVE IN PRISON-AND GETTING ‘SMART’ ON CRIME
Susan Urahn is the managing director of State Policy Initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, which recently released the first-ever five-year forecast of incarceration rates in U.S. state and federal prisons, entitled ‘Public Safety, Public Spending.’
Q prison, Your include study people on says who probation that are if you or in out on parole, one in every 32 adults in the United States is currently under correctional supervision. That makes co?itact with the criminal justice system sound almost normative, rather than aberrant.
A: I don’t know if it’s normative, but it’s certainly not unusual any more. It is amazing how many people have a family member, or know someone, who’s had contact with the criminal justice system. There’s been an enormous increase, and it’s even more striking when you look at the black and Hispanic populations, who do, unfortunately, commit crimes at higher rates.
Q: How important is poverty? Is there a direct correlation between, say, poverty in a particular neighbourhood and the incarceration rate?
A: There are studies showing interesting neighbourhood effects. For example, in Kansas, two counties are responsible for 40 per cent of the state’s inmate population. In New Haven, Conn., a single neighbourhood is generating US$20 million in corrections costs. There are certainly concentrations, and those neighbourhoods also tend to have very high rates of welfare payments and so on. There’s an inextricable combination of poverty, unemployment and other factors that intersect with crime, but there’s no linear, easy explanation.
Q: Since 1970, there’s been a 700 per cent increase in the prison population in the U.S. Your report explains that if current trends continue, within five years one in every 178 U.S. residents will live in prison. And that number doesn’t even include people in local jails. How much is it going to cost to have that many people behind bars?
A: We’re currently spending about US$61 billion a year on incarceration, and to accommodate the additional 192,000 prisoners we’re projecting by 2011, we’re estimating it will cost another US$275 billion because new prisons will need to be constructed.
Q: All this must mean that equally huge numbers of Americans will also be working in prisons or building them or making prison uniforms or other things for convicts. Is it fair to say that crime or at least punishment is becoming central to the U.S. economy?
A: It is an industry, there’s no doubt about it, but I have no idea what percentage of the economy it is.
Q: Aside from the crime rate, what’s driving the incarceration rate?
A: Sentencing policies have a significant impact. Truth in sentencing, for instance, which means that when a person is convicted of a particular type of crime and is sentenced to a term of X length, he will in fact serve some guaranteed percentage of that time. Previously, sentences were plea-bargained, or otherwise reduced, so there was not much connection between what the sentence was and the time actually served.
Q: But if these are dangerous people, they should be locked up, right?
A: If you look at crime from a national perspective, about half of the crimes that are committed are violent, and the other half tend to be drug and property related. The explosion in incarceration is not necessarily one that can be tacked directly to an explosion in violent crime. Today, a lot of prison admissions are people who are having their parole or probation revoked, in many cases because of technical violations like not turning up for an appointment with a parole officer. In some states, though, graduated sanctions are being put in place, so a technical violation doesn’t automatically result in being sent back to prison, but some kind of consequence occurs and further violations result in harsher sanctions, culminating in a return to prison. This is a more nuanced approach to criminal justice, identifying which people on parole and probation really do need intensive monitoring and supervision, which
people are higher risk to reoffend.
Q: The female prison population has grown by 57 per cent in the last 11 years, compared to 34 per cent for men. Why are so many more women going to prison now?
A: We don’t have a clear idea why. It may be drug-related, particularly methamphetamine-related, because overall there has been a spike in methamphetamine-related incarceration. It’s a shocking increase, but women are still a very small percentage of the prison population.
Q: The differences in imprisonment costs across the country are also pretty shocking. It costs almost US$45,000 per prisoner per year in Rhode Island versus about US$13,000 in Louisiana—why is there such a big difference?
A Cost on and staff the figures wages staff-to-inmate really and benefits, depend ratio. In the northeast, wages tend to be higher than in the south. And of course, if a facility is not full, it costs more per inmate.
Q: So the Rhode Island prisoner doesn’t necessarily have a better cell, or more access to programs and treatment?
A: That’s right. Prison conditions vary dramatically from state to state. For example, Alabama currently has 27,000 inmates in a system that was built for 13,000, so they have significant crowding problems. A number of states are experiencing these kinds of problems.
Q: Does that mean a cell built for two now houses four?
A: It can mean that. It can mean that there are fewer services. It is just common sense to say that when you have large numbers of inmates in cramped conditions, and not a lot of staff, it can only cause problems.
Q: But doesn’t incarceration at least have some impact on the crime rate, because you’re getting violent criminals off the street?
A: Most of the research shows that incarceration tends to account for about 25 per cent of the drop in crime rates [that occurred in the 1990s], so it certainly has an effect. But what we are looking at now is the law of diminishing returns. The more people you put in prison, you get gradually less and less impact on the crime rate. What states need to do is figure out who needs to be in prison to protect public safety—which is job one—how to hold offenders accountable, and how to pay attention to the fiscal bottom line and to be responsible stewards of taxpayers’ funds. States are finding that there are ways to handle non-violent and low-risk offenders that don’t involve incarceration. For example, community-based punishments such as day reporting, electronic monitoring, work release, having people work to pay fines and restitution—or in the case of drug offences, treatment. All these alternatives hold people accountable, protect public safety and also cost much less than incarceration.
: What are the rates of recidivism in community-based programs?
A: In Illinois, they’ve opened the nation’s first fully-dedicated drug treatment prison, and the initial data there indicate less recidivism and greater [post-release] employment compared to folks in traditional prisons. North Carolina is a good example of a state that looked very carefully at who they wanted in prison. In the mid-1980s, they were under threat of a federal takeover, and they adopted an entirely new sentencing structure that puts violent offenders in prison for longer terms, and steers lower-risk offenders toward community-based punishment. The percentage of felons sentenced to prison terms fell 47 per cent to 37 per cent, and that allowed them to make sure their prison space was available for the most serious offenders, and that the prison terms served by felony offenders more than doubled, from 16 months in 1993 to 39 months in 2005. In the 10 years since those sentencing reforms began, both the violent crime rate and the total crime rate in North Carolina have dropped. The judge who had a lot to do with these sentencing reforms has estimated that they have saved the state up to US$2 billion.
Q: Judging by network television, Americans are obsessed with crime and the criminal justice system. Do you think TV is glamorizing crime and thereby encouraging it?
A: I have no idea. But if you look at the polling data, 10 years ago, 36 per cent of Americans said that crime was one of the top two issues the government needed to address. And in 2003, the number of people who felt that way was less than one-half of one per cent. So I think there’s been a real shift in public perception about crime as a really serious issue. We did a poll in 2003 that showed 72 per cent of Americans think the criminal justice system should rehabilitate criminals, not just punish them. It may just be because so many people’s lives are now touched by the system. So television aside, there’s been a really fundamental shift in public opinion about the need for incarceration. That same poll showed that 75 per cent supported reducing spending on prisons and allocating those funds to public schools and community development programs.
What we see overall is that Americans want really serious criminals sent to prison, but they are very supportive of options, and rehabilitation efforts, for low-level offenders. It is a case where the public is ahead of the policy-makers. On average, correction spending is the fourth largest item states are struggling with, so it does mean that the more they spend on incarceration, the less they have to spend on education and health care. It’s also one of the things that states have pretty much complete control over in their budgets.
Q: But isn’t there a significant political danger of being perceived as soft on crime?
A: Traditionally there’s been a fear, but you can come at these problems from a very datadriven and sensible perspective, and we are seeing that more and more. Both conservatives and liberals are now talking about being smart on crime, not tough or soft on crime. Maybe the only nice thing about our projections is that they could well be wrong.
Q: But you didn’t pull these numbers out of a hat. Your study is based on statistics provided by the states and the federal government.
A: Yes. But our projections are a combination of the external factors—demographics, socio-economic and crime trends, things we don’t have a lot of control over—and the internal decisions the states themselves make on sentencing, on which offences are criminalized to which degree, how they use probation and parole, whether they have effective community-based punishment systems, So the states have a lot of control over whether these projections become reality. But if nothing changes, then absolutely, these numbers are very realistic. It’s like the ghost of Christmas future in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol— this is what you’re looking at, but does it have
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