The Pew Center's new report, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, is a humiliating admission of our failure as a society. The greatest nation on earth incarcerates 2.3 million adults in jails and prisons—more than 1% of its population? What does that say about our vaunted American values, social fabric, educational system and economic opportunities?
One way to look at "1 in 100" is that 1 out of 100 Americans reach adulthood without having learned what it takes to get along in the modern world. Another way to look at this is that we have a society that doesn't know what to do with one out of every hundred adult citizens. This is not to say that convicts are innocent victims of society, but surely such a high percentage—counted domestically or globally—is a strong signal that something isn't working. It says something more than "We're tough on crime."
The number of Americans incarcerated is both a higher total and a higher ratio than any other nation. The People's Republic of China, which was runner-up, imprisons few people overall, despite more than four times the population. By comparison, the 26 European nations with the largest prison populations have only 1,842,115 inmates combined, or 2.3% of the 802.4 million people. Americans are incarcerated at eight times the rate as Germans.
While keeping repeat offenders off the streets may make this country feel safer, there is no evidence that locking away first-time convicts yields a benefit in public security that is worth the staggering $54 billion economic cost, compared to diversion alternatives that are less expensive and equally effective. For example, Florida's prison population almost doubled between 1993 and 2007. Its crime rate dropped, but New York's crime rate dropped as much and its prison population is actually a little less than it was in 1993.
It's a bad investment as well as bad policy. One percent of Americans in prison (one out of nine black Americans between 20-34) is also 1% not contributing to society: not working, not paying restitution, not paying child support, not paying taxes -- 1% on top of the existing unemployment rate. Oregon, for example, spends about 11% of its general fund on corrections—a state's discretionary budget that would otherwise be available for other uses, such as transportation, healthcare, public safely and education. Between 1987 and 2007, inflation adjusted general fund spending on corrections by all 50 states increased an average of 127%, while spending on education rose only by 21%.
Maybe one reason is that five US states spend as much or more on corrections as they do on education. Averaged over all 50, they spend 60 cents on incarceration for every dollar they spend on schooling. But if our schools aren't equipping 2.3 million Americans with the life skills they need to stay out of prison, prison certainly doesn't teach those skills either. You might say from this study that schools have 1% failure rate. But in terms of rehabilitating offenders, about 50% of parolees are subsequently convicted of committing crimes.
Pew Report Finds More than 1 in 100 Adults are Behind Bars
Washington, DC - 02/28/2008 - For the first time in history more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison—a fact that significantly impacts state budgets without delivering a clear return on public safety. According to a new report released today by the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project, at the start of 2008, 2,319,258 adults were held in American prisons or jails, or one in every 99.1 men and women, according to the study. During 2007, the prison population rose by more than 25,000 inmates. In addition to detailing state and regional prison growth rates, Pew's report, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, identifies how corrections spending compares to other state investments, why it has increased, and what some states are doing to limit growth in both prison populations and costs while maintaining public safety.
As prison populations expand, costs to states are on the rise. Last year alone, states spent more than $49 billion on corrections, up from $11 billion 20 years before. However, the national recidivism rate remains virtually unchanged, with about half of released inmates returning to jail or prison within three years. And while violent criminals and other serious offenders account for some of the growth, many inmates are low-level offenders or people who have violated the terms of their probation or parole.
"For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn't been a clear and convincing return for public safety," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project. "More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers."
According to the report, 36 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons saw their prison populations increase in 2007. Among the seven states with the largest number of prisoners—those with more than 50,000 inmates—three grew (Ohio, Florida and Georgia), while four (New York, Michigan, Texas and California) saw their populations dip. Texas surpassed California as the nation's prison leader following a decline in both states' inmate populations—Texas decreased by 326 inmates and California by 4,068. Ten states, meanwhile, experienced a jump in inmate population growth of 5 percent or greater, a list topped by Kentucky with a surge of 12 percent.
A close examination of the most recent U.S. Department of Justice data (2006) found that while one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, the figure is one in nine for black males in that age group. Men are still roughly 13 times more likely to be incarcerated, but the female population is expanding at a far brisker pace. For black women in their mid- to late-30s, the incarceration rate also has hit the one-in-100 mark. In addition, one in every 53 adults in their 20s is behind bars; the rate for those over 55 is one in 837.
The report points out the necessity of locking up violent and repeat offenders, but notes that prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect a parallel increase in crime, or a corresponding surge in the nation's population at large. Instead, more people are behind bars principally because of a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through popular "three-strikes" measures and other sentencing laws, imposing longer prison stays on inmates.
As a result, states' corrections costs have risen substantially. Twenty years ago, the states collectively spent $10.6 billion of their general funds—their primary discretionary dollars—on corrections. Last year, they spent more than $44 billion in general funds, a 315 percent jump, and more than $49 billion in total funds from all sources. Coupled with tightening state budgets, the greater prison expenditures may force states to make tough choices about where to spend their money. For example, Pew found that over the same 20-year period, inflation-adjusted general fund spending on corrections rose 127 percent while higher education expenditures rose just 21 percent.
"States are paying a high cost for corrections—one that may not be buying them as much in public safety as it should. And spending on prisons may be crowding out investments in other valuable programs that could enhance a state's economic competitiveness," said Susan K. Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. "There are other choices. Some state policy makers are experimenting with a range of community punishments that are as effective as incarceration in protecting public safety and allow states to put the brakes on prison growth."
According to Pew, some states are attempting to protect public safety and reap corrections savings primarily by holding lower-risk offenders accountable in less-costly settings and using intermediate sanctions for parolees and probationers who violate conditions of their release. These include a mix of community-based programs such as day reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service—tactics recently adopted in Kansas and Texas. Another common intervention, used in Kansas and Nevada, is making small reductions in prison terms for inmates who complete substance abuse treatment and other programs designed to cut their risk of recidivism.
Pew was assisted in collecting state prison counts by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the JFA Institute. The report also relies on data published by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Association of State Budget Officers, and the U.S. Census Bureau.
To view the entire report, including state-by-state data and methodology, visit the Public Safety Performance Project's web Site.
Launched in 2006 as a project of Pew's Center on the States, the Public Safety Performance Project seeks to help states advance fiscally sound, data-driven policies and practices in sentencing and corrections that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and control corrections costs.
The Pew Charitable Trusts applies the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Our Center on the States identifies and advances effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states. Online at www.pewcenteronthestates.org.
ASSOCIATED REPORT: One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008