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How poverty and mental illness are putting more people behind bars

February 16, 2015 at 6:37 PM EDT
More Americans than ever before are spending time in jail despite a drop in the crime rate in the past two decades. That's according to a new report that also found that a disproportionate number of people in jail suffer from mental illness. Judy Woodruff discusses the findings with Nicholas Turner of the Vera Institute of Justice and Margo Schlanger of the University of Michigan.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A new report finds that more Americans than ever are spending time in jail. The Vera Institute of Justice showed that, in the past two decades, despite a drop in the crime rate, the number of people going to jail has increased dramatically.

In addition, those behind bars are staying longer. Some 62 percent of them have not yet been convicted of a crime, and three-quarters of those jailed now are brought in for nonviolent offenses. The report also finds that a disproportionate number of those in jail suffer from mental illness.

Joining us are Nicholas Turner. He’s president and director of the Vera Institute. And Margo Schlanger of the University of Michigan.

Nick Turner, to you first.

Why are the jails and prisons of the United States so full today?

NICHOLAS TURNER, President and Director, Vera Institute of Justice: Well, you have to go back, really, almost four decades. We have, since the early 1970s, been on what some people describe as a binge in this country, a reliance on incarceration and on confinement as the primary strategy to keep people safe. That’s been the argument.

And so, for the past 40 years, the number of people in jail and in prison in this country has gone up almost 400 percent. When you look at jails now, there are additional other reasons as to why we have so many people in jail. In the past few decades, we have increasingly arrested more and more people, not only for felonies or serious charges, but also for misdemeanors.

And we are also seeing more people who are being arrested being put in jail, so there is a general reflex within the criminal justice system still to rely on confinement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Margo Schlanger, but, overall, as we understand it, the number of arrests is down, so I think it’s hard to understand why the prison population has risen so much.

MARGO SCHLANGER, University of Michigan: Well, it’s always a function of two things.

One is who goes to prison, and the answer is a much higher proportion of the people who are getting arrested are going to prison, and then how long they stay there. And they’re staying a longer period of time. So prosecutors, who used to forgo using prison a fair amount, are foregoing prison much, much less.

And so we have a massive increase in the proportion of people arrested for crimes who go to prison, and that’s before you even get to jail, where people are going before they’re convicted often, and they’re going much more and for much longer periods of time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nick Turner, this report suggests that you have got a much higher percentage of people in prison who are poor and who are mentally ill. I think some of us would say, well, hasn’t it always been that way?

NICHOLAS TURNER: Well, I think the thing that is remarkable now is the scale of it.

Back in the early ’60s, the Vera Institute of Justice, the organization I ran, that I now run, got its start actually looking to solve the problem of people who were locked up in jail simply because they hadn’t been able to post bail. We did that. And the lesson spread across the country.

But one of the things that’s sort of bittersweet about the report that we have written now is, in fact, that this problem very much remains and, actually, in the past two decades, it’s gotten a bit worse, so that when you look at people who are in jail right now in this country — and, as you stated at the outset of this, about 60 percent of them are still locked up without having been convicted yet, so they’re presumed innocent — a large percent of them are locked up or are unable to get released because they can’t post bail.

So take New York City, for example, where in 2013 half of everyone who was at Rikers or some of the other detention facilities were there because they couldn’t post low rates of bail, $2,500 or less.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Margo Schlanger, this raises a whole set of questions, number one, the harm done to society by this. But, number two, I think what many people are asking is, what can be done about it, then?

MARGO SCHLANGER: Yes, I think that the jail problem, bail reform is the easiest thing, not that it’s easy, but it’s the thing that we really, clearly need.

And if we could solve the bail problem, if we could get people out of jail who haven’t been convicted anything and who are not there because they’re a danger, but because they don’t have $2,000 to post, we could really make a dent.

Solving the prison problem, the problem for people who have been convicted of felonies, that will take a more varied kind of set interventions. But I think it’s really — right how is a great moment for us to try to make those interventions.

And there are — I mean, there are a bunch of people. We could — we need to do parole and probation reform. We need to do the reform of the system that allows prisoners good-time credit off their sentences if they are behaving themselves in prison. We need to do community corrections kinds of reform, so that prosecutors have some place to send people when they — so that they don’t just send them to prison because it’s the only option.

If we could do all those things, we could really maybe make a dent and get down from 2.3 million people in jail and prison and get down to something that is historically more typical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Nick Turner, Professor Schlanger just used the term complex set of solutions. It does sound complicated to accomplish all this. Is this something that realistically can be done?

NICHOLAS TURNER: I think it is, absolutely.

And so let me make two points about that. I mean, the first is, is that report that we wrote came about as part of Safety and Justice Challenge, which is an initiative undertaken by the MacArthur Foundation which is encouraging localities around the country, building it’s localities, it’s cities and counties that run jail systems, and that also have the opportunity to figure out how to recuse over-incarceration.

And the — one of the primary reasons why this challenge has been undertaken is because there is a sense of the potential for solutions. So I will make two very quick points about that. One is that there’s an absolute necessity. As Margo pointed out, when people are locked up prior to conviction, one of the things that we know is that that detention has very negative — very negative consequences for people.

There’s a higher rate of re-arrest post being locked up. There’s a higher rate of returning to prison. And for people who have been locked up for even two days or so, they’re more likely to get eventually sentenced to prison and be sentenced for a longer period of time.

So what’s really essential is that we figure out how to help people avoid those few days of being locked up. And there are lots of solutions. You can look at options for the police. Rather than arrest, they can divert people who have a mental health or a substance abuse problem. You can look at mental health courts or drug courts where treatment is possible.

And, as Margo said, you can rely less on bail as sort of the ticket out of detention and release people on recognizance, which we have known has been proven to be effective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I hope that this is something that we can come back to. It’s clearly a big subject and one, as both of you suggest, will take some time, but it sounds as if the work is beginning.

Nick Turner and Professor Margo Schlanger, we thank you both.

MARGO SCHLANGER: Thank you.

NICHOLAS TURNER: Thanks so much for having us.

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