1 in 31 US adults are under “correctional control”

According to a report published earlier this week by the Pew Center on the States 1 in 31 adults in the USA are on probation, in prison or on parole, compared with 1 in 77 in 1982. The overall figures add up to an astounding 7.3 million adults under correctional control.

Not surprisingly the report shows that men are five times more likely than women to be in the corrections system, and black adults are 4 times more likely than white adults to be in the system. The cost of the system is staggering: $68 billion a year. Yet research shows that the overall impact of the correctional system in the USA has had little impact on the reoffending rates. At present, according to the report, prisons consume nearly 90 % of state corrections spending, although two-thirds of offenders under supervision are in fact on parole or probation. The yearly cost for a prison inmate is around $29,000, whilst the average cost of managing parolees and probationers range from $1,250 to $2,750 a year.

Whether the current financial crisis in the USA will have an impact on the overall structure and philosophy of the correction system is of course yet to be seen. However, the report calls for policy leaders to see the situation as “a chance to retool their sentencing and corrections systems.” rather than simply undertaking short term cost cutting.

The report reflects some of the current theories on punishment and an understanding that perhaps the policies of being “tough on crime” have in fact not resulted in any significant improvement in crime control. At the same time the report reflects the view that building more prisons is “not a cost-effective path to greater public safety”.

The report sets out a six-step strategy to manage the growing population

  1. sorting offenders by risk to the public safety – separate offenders who are more likely to cause serious harm. The report calls for the use and further development of more scientific methods of risk assessment.
  2. basing intervention programs on science – in other words use evidence based practices and programs such as the use of case plans for higher risk offenders and the locating of supervision agencies in the neighbourhoods where offenders tend to live.
  3. harnessing technology – including electronic monitoring, GPS technology, monitoring drug and alcohol offenders with random testing. Overall they are recommending an intensification of traditional “face-to-face” supervision.
  4. imposing swift and certain sanctions where offenders break their supervision thus strengthening probation
  5. creating incentives for success – which encompasses incentives for offenders to change their behaviour, benefits for agencies which succeed and a system of measuring results.
  6. measuring progress.

The report confirms the fact that the US currently has the highest inmate population. According to a report last month from the US Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics a total of 2.3 million adults were in prison in 2007.

Whilst the findings of the report are clearly welcome in the light of long term concerns about the level of imprisonment in the USA, the report does not question or challenge the levels of criminalisation of American citizens, but instead focuses on the value of alternatives to prison.

American Prisons: Some Perspectives

Today’s New York Times carries an editorial entitled “Prison Nation” in which recent statistics on the United States’ prison population released by the Pew Centre on the States are considered. According to these statistics, contained in a report entitled One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, the US’ prison population stands at approximately 1.6 million and racial disparities among those imprisoned are stark. The editorial argues that these statistics “point to a terrible waste of money and lives” and “underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety”. The editorial also acknowledges, however, that persuading politicians to reduce their reliance on incarceration will be difficult, “not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry”.

The editorial calls to mind two interesting publications. The first is an excellent edited collection entitled (coincidentally) Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America’s Poor (Amazon) which contains essays on inter alia privatization of prisons, racial disparities, sexual abuse, the HIV/AIDS crisis in American prisons.

The second is the Concluding Observations of the CERD on fifth and sixth periodic reports of the United States, which were released on February 28th. In these Concluding Observations the CERD expressed concern about “the persistent racial disparities in the criminal justice system…including the disproportionate number of persons belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities in the prison population” (paragraph 20), the fact the “young offenders belonging to racial, ethnic and national minorities, including children, constitute a disproportionate number of those sentenced to life imprisonment without parole” (paragraph 21), and “the persistent and significant racial disparities with regard to the imposition of the death penalty, particularly those associated with the race of the victim” (paragraph 23).