With 2.2 million people behind bars — a staggering 500 percent increase over the past 30 years — the United States has become the world’s leading jailer. Nearly 5 million more people are on probation or parole. One of every 31 American adults is under the control of the criminal justice system.
More hopefully, the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported that the U.S. prison population in 2012 declined slightly, for the third straight year. The nation’s race to incarcerate has finally slowed, but broader sentencing reforms and policy changes are needed to bring prison populations back to rational and sustainable levels.
At the current rate, it would take 88 years for the U.S. prison population to return to its 1980 level, reports the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group. Economically and socially, the country can’t afford to wait.
Nearly half of state prison inmates in 2011 were convicted of nonviolent drug, property, or public-order crimes, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The nation needs, among other things, sweeping sentencing reforms, shorter but more intense prison stays for many probation and parole violators, and opportunities for parole for the growing number of aging and sick inmates.
Across the country, prison counts rose every year between 1973 and 2010. Those spikes were driven by policy changes — not crime rates — including harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, so-called three-strikes laws, and other get-tough-on-crime measures.
Nearly 40 percent of the nation’s prisoners are African-Americans. Black males have a 1-in-3 chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives, according to The Sentencing Project.
In recent years, a growing number of activists, policy makers, and politicians — including budget-conscious conservatives and right-leaning libertarians — have questioned the nation’s prison-building boom. Prisons have become big business, costing the nation an estimated $75 billion a year.
Mass incarceration has severed community social networks, especially in poor neighborhoods, left one in 14 African-American children with a parent in prison, and created lifelong employment barriers for the 95 percent of prisoners who eventually go home.
Nearly 700,000 people a year leave U.S. prisons, often unprepared for life on the outside. For those reasons and others, many sociologists believe that mass incarceration has aggravated crime and violence, instead of helping to contain it.
Moreover, strapped budgets have forced states, including Ohio and Michigan, to get smarter on crime. Michigan spends $2 billion a year on corrections — more than it spends on higher education. With each inmate costing an average of $35,000 a year, Michigan has invested heavily in prisoner re-entry programs to make sure that more of those who leave prison don’t come back.
So has Ohio, which spends $1.5 billion a year on corrections. The state’s Republican U.S. senator, Rob Portman, has championed the Second Chance Act, which helps states assist recently released prisoners in finding jobs, housing, and needed services.
Ohio’s recidivism rate dropped to a record low of 28.7 percent in 2012, compared to nearly 40 percent a decade ago. In keeping with national trends, Ohio’s prison population has fallen slightly in recent years — from 50,921 in December, 2010, to 50,214 in December, 2011, and to 49,874 in December, 2012.
In December, 2013, however, the state’s inmate count rose again, to 50,555. Last month’s count, however, is still 1.4 percent below Ohio’s record high of 51,273 prisoners in November, 2008.
To manage its prison population, Ohio has enacted sensible sentencing reforms to increase good-time credits and permit judicial releases. The state also has become a national leader in reducing the barriers that ex-offenders face in finding jobs, housing, and education. But Ohio will need to do much more.
Recent declines in the U.S. prison population have been modest, even minuscule, and not across the board. The federal prison-system count, with more than 200,000 inmates, has not fallen. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only 28 states reduced their prison populations in 2012, contributing to a national reduction of just 29,000 inmates.
Gary Mohr, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, has outlined some bold but practical reforms. He needs support from the General Assembly, Gov. John Kasich, and the public.
States must also make greater investments in early childhood education. Cities need to do a better job of organizing communities to address violence at the neighborhood level.
The United States appears to be ending an insidious, costly incarceration spree. Right-sizing prison populations in states such as Ohio will take courage and foresight, but the alternative is wasting billions more dollars that would be better spent on education, health care, transportation, and other vital needs.