The research wing of the U.S. Congress is warning that three decades of “historically unprecedented” build-up in the number of prisoners incarcerated in the United States have led to a level of overcrowding that is now “taking a toll on the infrastructure” of the federal prison system.
Over the past 30 years, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the federal prison population has jumped from 25,000 to 219,000 inmates, an increase of nearly 790 percent. Swollen by such figures, for years the United States has incarcerated far more people than any other country, today imprisoning some 716 people out of every 100,000. (Although CRS reports are not made public, a copy can be found here.)
“This is one of the major human rights problems within the United States, as many of the people caught up in the criminal justice system are low income, racial and ethnic minorities, often forgotten by society,” Maria McFarland, deputy director for the U.S. programme at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
In recent years, as a consequence of the imposition of very harsh sentencing policies, McFarland’s office has seen new patterns emerging of juveniles and very elderly people being put in prison.
“Last year, some 95,000 juveniles under 18 years of age were put in prison, and that doesn’t count those in juvenile facilities,” she noted.
“And between 2007 and 2011, the population of those over 64 grew by 94 times the rate of the regular population. Prisons clearly aren’t equipped to take care of these aging people, and you have to question what threat they pose to society – and the justification for imprisoning them.”
According to the new CRS report, a growing number of these prisoners are being put away for charges related to immigration violations and weapons possession. But the largest number is for relatively paltry drug offences – an approach that report author Nathan James, a CRS analyst in crime policy, warns may not be useful in bringing down crime statistics.
“Research suggests that while incarceration did contribute to lower violent crime rates in the 1990s, there are declining marginal returns associated with ever increasing levels of incarceration,” James notes. He suggests that one potential explanation for this could be that people have been increasingly incarcerated for crimes in which there is a “high level of replacement”.
For instance, he says, if a serial rapist is incarcerated, the judicial system has the power to prevent further sexual assaults by that offender, and it is likely that no one will take the offender’s place. “However, if a drug dealer is incarcerated, it is possible that someone will step in to take that person’s place,” James writes. “Therefore, no further crimes may be averted by incarcerating the individual.”
Smarter on crime
Of course, the U.S. prison population’s blooming needs to be traced back to changes within the federal criminal justice system. Recent decades have seen an expanding “get tough” approach on crime here, under which even nonviolent offenders are facing stiff prison sentences.
In turn, overcrowding has become a massive issue, with the federal prison system as a whole operating at 39 percent over capacity in 2011, according to CRS. The result has also been significant price overruns, with the Bureau of Prisons budget doubling to nearly 6.4 billion dollars even while hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unaddressed infrastructure problems continue to mount.
Yet the problems being experienced by the federal prison system actually stand in contrast to certain trends at the state level. While some states have dealt with even more worrisome problems of prison overcrowding – including California, which in 2011 was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to take steps to reduce the pressure – recent years have seen movement at the state level to counter overincarceration.
Some of this action may have come from serious state budget crises. Currently, after all, it costs between 25,000 and 30,000 dollars to house a prisoner in the United States.
According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, a Washington advocacy group working on prison reform, prisoner populations in the United States overall declined by around 1.5 percent in 2011. Furthermore, last year lawmakers in 24 states adopted policies that “may contribute to downscaling prison populations”.
“There has been a marked change in the amount of activity at the state level to end our addiction to incarceration,” Vineeta Gupta, deputy legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told IPS.
“Some states are currently having many discussions they would not have had 10 years ago – getting smarter on crime rather than tougher on crime. None of these moves are comprehensive enough to address the large scope of the problem, but they’re very important starting points.”
She continued: “Unfortunately, the federal government has been going in the opposite direction.”
Arguably, the single most important element in explaining the record incarceration numbers both at the federal and state levels could be “mandatory minimum” sentencing requirements, under which federal and state law over the past two decades has automatically required certain prison sentences for certain crimes, particularly for drug offences.
Such polices have eliminated the ability of judges to tailor judicial responses to individual circumstance. Over the years, sitting judges have resigned over mandatory minimum policies, while others have waged high-visibility campaigns for their rollback.
“Particular attention should be given to reforming mandatory minimums and parole release mechanisms as policies that can work to reduce state prison populations,” the Sentencing Project suggests, noting also that “Mandatory minimums do not reduce crime but result in lengthy prison terms that contribute to overcrowding.”
Such analysis echoes parts of the CRS conclusions while also undergirding growing momentum on the issue. According to the Sentencing Project, seven states last year weakened or repealed certain mandatory minimum regulations.
More dramatically, in mid-January, Senator Patrick Leahy, the head of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, told a Washington audience that he would support doing away entirely with federal mandatory minimums, which he called “a great mistake”.
“Senator Leahy’s comments are a very big step towards starting a conversation to address a major driver of the federal growth,” the ACLU’s Gupta says. “The hope is that some of the stuff that’s brewing in the states, where crime in some places is still at an all-time low, can now serve as an example for the federal system.”