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Prisons in America

Prisons are big in the United States. There are more people behind bars literally, and proportionally, than any time in our history. We have a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other nation. And, we keep building more prisons, in fact many locales lobby for new prisons as a tool of economic recovery. What are the actual numbers that put American prison populations in historical and international perspective?

Who's Locked Up Around the World?

In 2001, nearly 6.6 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year end. That number represents 3.1% of all U.S. adult residents or one in every 32 adults.

American Prisons: The Debate
Between 1973 and 2000 the rate of incarceration in the United States more than quadrupled. The International Centre for Prison Studies at Kings College, London now calculates the U.S. rate at 700 people per 100,000. (That number encompasses the most recently available federal, state and local prison population statistics.) There are now more than two million Americans behind bars. Add to that another four and a half million on probation or parole and three million ex-convicts.

The trend shows no sign of slowing — prisons are being constructed nationwide. The effect of the growth of the prison and ex-prison population on American society is a subject of great debate. Advocates of tough sentencing laws point to a nationwide overall drop in the crime rate as a benefit of increasing incarceration. Sentencing reformers suggest that rates of recidivism indicate that high rates of imprisonment create a growing group which cannot function outside the criminal culture and may eventually devastate the social fabric of many American communities.

Substance Abuse and Crime
What is certain is that drug sentencing laws and drug eradication policies have had a critical role in the growth of the prison population. In 1980 the incarceration rate for drug offenses was 15 inmates per 100,000 adults ; by 1996, it was 148 inmates per 100,000 adults. The figures for federal prison are even more stark. In 1970, 16.3 percent of all federal inmates were imprisoned on drug-related charges; in 2002 that percentage had risen to 54.7 percent.

Those numbers don't take into account the ripple effects of substance abuse on overall crime rates. A 1999 Bureau of Justice study found that nearly 33 percent of state prison inmates reported being under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they committed their offense. Additionally, the same study found that 19 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners committed their crimes in order to purchase drugs.

Race and Imprisonment
NOW's report "Truth and Lies" focuses on a Tulia, Texas case which has renewed debate about the efficacy of the government's war on drugs policy. Critics argue that the current law enforcement strategies and drug sentencing guidelines fall disproportionally on minority communities. A recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study showed that nearly 17 percent of African-American men had some prison experience, compared with 7.7 percent of Hispanic and 2.6 percent of white men. According to Human Rights Watch, although the proportion of drug users who are black is estimated to be from 13 to 15 percent, blacks account for 36 percent of all drug arrests and 63 percent of those convicted of drug crimes in state prisons.

The Tulia case has also renewed questions about drug enforcement task forces and their supervision. Task forces like those in Texas are funded through the Edward Byrne Memorial State and Local Enforcement Assistance Program, created by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. In 2003 Congress spent $488 million on the program. The House Judiciary Committee will soon begin an "oversight" review of the Tulia scandal.

Bureau of Justice statistics also show that as of 2001, nearly 70 percent of all released prisoners will be rearrested within three years. Of state parolees, only 42 percent completed their parole terms without reoffending, a rate that has remained constant for a decade — down from 70 percent in 1985.

As NOW's report "Rebuilding Lives" illustrates, many American prisoners return to the outside world with minimal support systems in place. They face the worries of society — a survey of employers in five large cities found that 65 percent would not knowingly hire an ex-convict. And, recent studies also suggest that nearly three-quarters of inmates have had problems with substance abuse.

American lawmakers and the American public are engaged in an ongoing debate about how best to break the drug and crime recidivism cycle. With budgets tightening all over, prisons, the War on Drugs and treatment programs will be chasing fewer dollars. Communities nationwide are worried about substance abuse in their youth and on their streets and the crime that sometimes stems from it.

New and Old Laws
There are some recent legal changes that bear on this discussion. California's Proposition 36 was passed in November 2000. The measure sends first- and second-time non-violent drug offenders to treatment rather than prison. In late June of 2003 the New York State legislature came close to a repeal of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, which were implemented 30 years ago during Governor Nelson Rockefeller's tenure. The laws impose mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. Now there is a bi-partisan move to soften the laws, led by Joseph L. Bruno, the Republican Senate majority leader, Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the State Assembly and Governor Pataki, also a Republican. The groups did not come to an agreement, but for the third year running all sides have agreed that the sentences are too harsh. The matter will be addressed again in the next session.

Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics; International Centre for Prison Studies; American Civil Liberties Union: Prison Issues; Federal Bureau of Prisons; Drug Policy Alliance; Centre for Crime and Justice Statistics; "Why Do Prisons Grow?" SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, December 2001; "The Punishing Decade: Prison and Jail Estimates at the Millennium;" Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice; National Center for Victims of Crime - Drug-Related Crime; The Sentencing Project

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