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Feature: Veterans Incarcerated and Ignored When They Could Be Getting Help, Report Finds

Roughly 200,000 US veterans are in prison or jail, many of them there because of substance abuse or mental health issues, according to a new report released Wednesday. The report outlines the problem and suggests reforms that could ease the plight of American soldiers returning from the war zone and trying to make the transition back to civilian society.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/vamedicalcenter.jpg
VA Medical Center, Columbia, MO
According to the report, 140,000 vets were in prison in 2004, with tens of thousands more serving time in jails. Nearly half (46%) of vets doing time in federal prison were incarcerated for drug offenses, while 15% of those in state prison were, including 5.6% doing time for simple possession. Three out five (61%) of incarcerated vets met the criteria for substance dependence or abuse.

The report, Healing a Broken System: Veterans Battling Addiction and Incarceration, comes at a critical time. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers currently deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US faces a mounting challenge in caring for returning vets.

Many are returning home damaged by their experiences. According to the report, 30% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury, depression, mental illness, or other cognitive disability. These medical conditions, if left untreated, can contribute to problematic drug use, addiction, and fatal overdoses, as well as homelessness, suicide, and criminality, particular violations of the drug laws.

While the study mentions 200,000 vets behind bars, the number is most likely much higher. That's because owing to problems in data collection -- a problem in itself -- the last year for which hard numbers on vets behind bars is available was 2004. Since then, more than a million more vets have returned from their deployments and mustered out.

The report had its genesis about a year and a half ago, when the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) teamed up with a classroom of law students at Northeastern University in Boston to investigate the obstacles veterans were facing in obtaining adequate access to mental health and substance abuse services. In addition to a series of surprising and dramatic findings, the report also includes a list of specific recommendations about how to improve services for vets suffering mental health and substance abuse issues.

"We learned that far too many returning vets are falling victim to the war on drugs because of barriers to effective treatment," said DPA's Dan Abrahamson at a Wednesday press conference. "There are nearly a quarter million vets behind bars right now for crimes motivated in part by mental health or drug addiction problems. One third of returning vets report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Also, vets suffer from traumatic brain injury, depression, and mental illness at higher rates than normal. All of those are contributory factors to substance abuse and drug addiction, as well as overdose, homelessness, suicide, and being arrested for a non-violent drug offense."

In the battle theater, soldiers are supposed to function despite high stress, and the military is more than willing to prescribe them whatever it takes to keep them fighting. But it's a different story when the vets come home.

"Service-related drug dependency is being talked about quite a bit in the veterans community, but is not well understood outside the military," said Tom Tarantino, an Iraq war veteran and now legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The ease of obtaining prescriptions in theater is staggering," he explained. "I know crack dealers who are more discriminating about issuing drugs than some of the medics I saw in Iraq. It's alarming how many people were just given anti-depressants instead of asking whether they were really fit for duty," said the veterans' lobbyist.

"Sometimes, it's just a matter of expediency and life in a combat zone, but then you have vets coming back from an environment where meds are very loosely prescribed and they are confronted with a medical system much more stringent about issuing drugs," Tarantino explained. "And that can cause problems."

"Let's be smarter than the problem," said veterans' advocate Guy Gambill. "We can't afford not to be. We arrest too many people and incarcerate them for too long. Then the mark of a criminal record keeps them from getting jobs, housing, and other services, and then the recidivism rate goes up."

There are things that can be done, Gambill said. States can change their incarceration policies. Localities can be more proactive.

"Chicago police and the LAPD are doing front-end interventions," Gambill noted. "In LA, trained peer specialists are doing ride-alongs with the LAPD so the officers will recognize Iraq and Afghanistan war vets. In Chicago, police are doing crisis intervention training, and the first hundred of them are all Iraq and Afghanistan vets. They'll try to grab these guys at first contact and get them into treatment instead of jail. These sorts of peer-led interventions work very well. We need to catch this on the front end, so we don't have 200,000 homeless vets on the streets like we do now."

Another stumbling block is the Department of Veterans Affairs current policy on drug treatment for vets. The VA is willing to offer treatment, but not for vets behind bars.

"We need the Department of Veterans Affairs to lift their ban on drug treatment of incarcerated vets," said Tarantino. "We're pleased that the department now has a justice coordinator at every VA hospital, but they're waiting outside the prison door, not inside, when the vets need it most. This is a regulation they can change with the stroke of a pen," he said.

Yet another problem for vets, especially those with substance abuse issues, is the lack of access to proven treatments. And because the insurance provided to soldiers by the armed forces also covers their families, lack of access to treatment affects them as well.

"Vets don't qualify for substance abuse treatment unless they are diagnosed with PTSD," said Abel Moreno, a former Army sergeant who saw service in both theaters and who now works with veterans through his organization Vets 4 Vets. "We are fighting two wars at once. It's obvious PTSD exists, and it's clear there are going to be substance abuse issues. We've created a subgenre among today's vets where there is a pain pill-popping mitigation ideal. We need quantified data so we can attack this situation head on," he said.

It's not only in failing to provide drug treatment absent a PTSD diagnosis where the DOD falls down, said Dr. Bob Newman, MD, director of the Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "Tricare, the Department of Defense insurance plan refuses to pay for maintenance treatment of addiction with methadone or buprenorphine," he noted. "Maintenance therapy is not a new idea. It's endorsed by agencies such as NIDA, SAMHSA, the Institute of Medicine, and the World Health Organization. The US government supports this, yet DOD has an insurance plan that excludes maintenance treatment without explanation. That's outrageous," he said.

Tricare insures not only military personnel, but also their families. Tricare's refusal to pay for maintenance therapy nearly cost Teresa Bridges her daughter. Teresa's daughter, Amanda, married a soldier, Sgt. Shawn Dressler. Dressler was killed in combat shortly after the couple were wed, and Amanda retreated into a haze of Lortab and Tramitol. Tricare paid for her treatment, but after a year, her doctor noted on her records that she was being subscribed maintenance doses of Suboxone.

"Suddenly, Tricare dropped her like a hot potato," Bridges said. "Tricare believes taking Suboxone is just substituting one addictive drug for another -- at least that's what they told me. Amanda has done well on Suboxone, and if she stops taking it, she will eventually relapse. Fortunately, she is now in a temporary assistance program, but that will end after a year."

There are potential reforms that could ease the plight of returning vets, the report said. Among them are:

  • Changes in state and federal statutes to focus on treatment instead of incarceration for veterans who commit nonviolent drug-related offenses.
  • Adoption by government agencies of overdose prevention programs and policies targeting veterans who misuse substances or take prescription medications.
  • Significantly expanded access for veterans to medication-assisted therapies such as methadone and buprenorphine to treat opioid dependence.

"The care and feeding and support of vets is a national concern and responsibility," said Gen. Stephen Xenakis, MD, Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs for Staff, Warrior & Family Support . "We are looking to knit together all the various services and institutions so that the soldier who has served and come home and ends up having problems or maybe ended up incarcerated gets treatment from all the sources available."

One of the big problems, said Tarantino, is lack of hard information. He noted that the Justice Department numbers in the report are from 2004. "In 2004, there were over one million fewer vets than there are today," he said. "We don't know how many vets are behind bars right now. We have no method for tracking vets unless they interact with some social services. We need to have DOD and DOJ compare lists. We need data," he said.

Lack of coordination among agencies dealing with vets is part of the problem, said Xenakis. "We need to better configure what we're doing," he said. "Records are not shared. The Department of Justice doesn't have access to Department of Defense records. We need to get organized so we can track people over time."

That effort has the support of the Pentagon, Xenakis said. "Our leadership heartily endorses this," he said. "It is really important that this information that this information is out there now, and that we follow it with the best action plans we can create. As a country, we have a responsibility to support our vets."

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

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The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

Will Foster is Back in Prison in Oklahoma and Needs Your Help

Will Foster’s nightmarish saga continues. Foster, you may recall, is the medical marijuana patient who was sentenced to 93 years in prison for growing a few plants in 1997. Thanks in no small part to a publicity campaign by Stopthedrugwar.org, Foster’s sentence was eventually reduced to 20 years, and he was paroled to California. After three years on parole, California officials decided Foster no longer needed supervision, but Oklahoma officials disagreed. When Foster was arrested in California for driving on an Oklahoma drivers’ license, Oklahoma issued a parole violation extradition warrant, but Foster filed a successful writ of habeas corpus to quash that warrant. Then, last year, Foster was arrested on bogus marijuana cultivation charges--those California charges were dropped after he spent a year in jail--and Oklahoma again sought his extradition as a parole violator. Oklahoma officials took Foster from the Sonoma County Jail in California, and he is now residing in prison in Oklahoma until 2011--or 2015, as Oklahoma parole officials are now claiming. In Oklahoma, the governor ultimately decides on whether to revoke parole or not. Foster had an administrative hearing Tuesday, which unsurprisingly found he had indeed violated his parole (by refusing to sign paperwork agreeing that his sentence had been extended). An executive hearing will take place sometime in the next one to three months, then that decision goes to the governor for approval or rejection. Foster and his supporters are urging the public to write to the parole board to ask it to recommend pardoning him or commuting his sentence, and to write or call the governor asking for the same thing. Key points: * Foster is a non-violent medical marijuana patient seriously ill with rheumatoid arthritis; * Foster plans to return to California and never set foot in Oklahoma again; * The after-the-fact extension of his sentence from 2011 to 2015 is unfair and unwarranted; * It does not make fiscal or budgetary sense for the state of Oklahoma to spend thousands of scarce public dollars to incarcerate Foster again for this non-violent offense. I just spoke to the parole office in Oklahoma, and they don’t yet have the information in their system required to send letters to parole board members, so instead, fax your concise, respectful letters to the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board at (405) 602-6437. Mention Foster’s full name, William Joseph Foster, and his prisoner number, ODOC #252271. Fax your letter to Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry at (405) 521-3353 or, better yet, call his office at (405) 521-2342. In either case, mention Foster’s full name and prisoner number, and be polite. Drug War Chronicle will continue following Foster’s saga. Look for a feature article on the latest twists and turns on Friday.

Medical Marijuana: Will Foster Extradited to Oklahoma

Medical marijuana patient Will Foster is behind bars in Oklahoma after being picked up last Friday by Oklahoma law enforcement officials. He had been held at the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, California, for the past 15 months as he fought bogus marijuana cultivation charges there -- he was a registered patient with a legal grow -- and, after the California charges were dropped, on a parole violation warrant from the Sooner State.

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Will Foster (medicalmarijuanaofamerica.com)
Foster had been arrested and convicted of growing marijuana in Oklahoma and sentenced to 93 years in prison in the 1990s. After that draconian sentence focused national attention on his case, he was eventually resentenced to 20 years in prison. He later won parole and moved to California, where he served three years on parole and was discharged from parole by California authorities.

That wasn't good enough for vindictive Oklahoma authorities, who wanted to squeeze more years out of Foster. He refused to sign Oklahoma paperwork requiring him to return there to serve out the remainder of his sentence. He also refused to sign paperwork that extended his original service. Oklahoma authorities issued a parole violation warrant, and the governors of both states signed it.

Foster had sought to block extradition by filing a writ of habeas corpus -- he had won a similar writ against Oklahoma earlier -- but that effort failed last Friday, and Oklahoma authorities were there to whisk him away. Foster is scheduled to be held at the Tulsa County Jail before being assigned to a prison in the Oklahoma gulag.

Efforts by Foster supporters to secure his release continue and are now focusing on Oklahoma parole authorities and the state governor. For more information about the Foster case, see our Chronicle story here and Ed Rosenthal's blog here.

Drug War Chronicle will continue to follow the Foster case. Look for a feature article next week.

Will Foster Extradited to Oklahoma

Medical marijuana patient Will Foster is en route to prison in Oklahoma after being picked up Friday by Oklahoma law enforcement officials. He had been held at the Sonoma County Jail in Santa Rosa, California, for the past 15 months as he fought bogus marijuana cultivation charges there--he was a registered patient with a legal grow--and, after the California charges were dropped, on a parole violation warrant from the Sooner State. Foster had been arrested and convicted of growing marijuana in Oklahoma and sentenced to 93 years in prison in the 1990s. After that draconian sentence focused national attention on his case, he was eventually resentenced to 20 years in prison. He later won parole and moved to California, where he served three years on parole and was discharged from parole by California authorities. That wasn't good enough for vindictive Oklahoma authorities, who wanted to squeeze more years out of Foster. He refused to sign Oklahoma paperwork requiring him to return there to serve out the remainder of his sentence. He also refused to sign paperback that extended his original service. Oklahoma authorities issued a parole violation warrant, and the governors of both states signed it. Foster had sought to block extradition by filing a writ of habeas corpus--he had won a similar writ against Oklahoma earlier--but that effort failed on Friday, and Oklahoma authorities were there to whisk him away. Foster is scheduled to be held at the Tulsa County Jail before being assigned to a prison in the Oklahoma gulag. Efforts by Foster supporters to secure his release continue and are now focusing on Oklahoma parole authorities and the state governor. For more information about the Foster case, see our Chronicle story here and at Ed Rosenthal's blog here. Drug War Chronicle will continue to follow the Foster case. Look for a feature article next week.

Europe: British Prisons Install Methadone Vending Machines

In a bid to promote opiate maintenance therapy behind bars, the British government has begun installing methadone vending machines in the country's prisons. Justice Minister Phil Hope told parliament last week that 57 vending machines have been installed so far.

The machines allow prisoners to receive an individualized dose of methadone by giving a fingerprint or an iris scan. The machines are paid for by the Department of Health and will cost about $6.5 million dollars, about 10% of the department's prison drug treatment budget. The target is to have the machines in half of Britain's 140 prisons.

According to the latest available prison population statistics, in 2007, nearly 6,400 of Britain's 81,000 prisoners were there on drug charges, with slightly more than half of them charged with simple drug possession or possession with intent to distribute. The official statistics provide no breakdown of which drugs were involved.

"Methadone dispensers are a safe and secure method for providing a prescribed treatment," said a health department spokesman. "They can only be accessed by the person who has been clinically assessed as needing methadone and that person is recognized by a biometric marker, such as their iris."

Providing methadone to addicted prisoners allows them to manage their habits without resorting to illicit heroin supplies within the prisons. But the opposition Conservatives were quick to try to score political points, claiming that the Labor government would rather "manage offenders' addiction" than end it.

"The public will be shocked that Ministers are spending more on methadone vending machines than the entire budget for abstinence based treatments," said Dominic Grieve, the Conservative shadow justice secretary. "Getting prisoners clean of drugs is one of the keys to getting them to go straight. We need to get prisoners off all drug addiction -- not substitute one dependency for another. The government's approach of trying to 'manage' addiction is an admission of failure."

The Conservatives are hammering away at Labor any way they can as they prepare for national elections sometime in the coming months. Attacking enlightened approaches to inmate drug addiction is just another arrow in their "tough on crime" quiver.

No More $$$ = No More Prisons

Amidst the surging debate over our nation's draconian drug policy and general over-reliance on incarceration, there is one important factor that even the most diehard law & order ideologues can't just brush aside…

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Michigan officials said Friday that the state is closing three prisons and five prison camps in hopes of narrowing a $1.4 billion budget gap for fiscal 2010.

If you can't afford to maintain giant iron cities full of people that must be fed, clothed and monitored 24-7, then you have to stop building them and start closing down the ones you have. This reality is finally beginning to sink in across the country:

Michigan is not alone in turning to its prison system for savings. Some 25 states cut spending on corrections in fiscal 2009 and another 25 are proposing to do so in fiscal 2010, as they struggle to address massive budget shortfalls.

"It's a trend we'll be seeing more and more of in coming months given the dire revenue situation states are in," said Sujit CanagaRetna, senior fiscal analyst at the Council of State Governments, a research group.

Well, bring it on. This isn't exactly what we had in mind when we started calling for criminal justice reform, but we'll take it.

We should never underestimate the extent to which our hideously bloated prison population owes much of its existence to a reversible pattern of public hysteria and reactionary political idiocy. The number of inmates in U.S. prisons has increased more than five-fold in my lifetime, and I was born in the 80's. It just wasn't all that long ago that our prison population was relatively manageable and there's no real reason we can't return to that. Indeed, we may have no other choice.

NEW REPORT -- A cautionary tale: The impact of incarceration on Baltimore City

JPI header

  

Baltimore City residents share their experiences and hopes for the future

Advocates say new report is "a cautionary tale" for the nation's leaders

 

 

Contact: LaWanda Johnson
202-558-7974 x308
202-320-1029

BALTIMORE, MD--Teens spending their free time comforting parents who have lost their own children to violence; a woman fighting to break the cycle of addiction while fighting to keep her family together; a man struggling to keep his job while trying to comply with parole reporting requirements; a formerly incarcerated single mother making her daughter proud by getting her degree; and a woman grappling with the murder of her son and forgiving his assailant. These are some of the people who share their experiences in a new report, Bearing Witness: Baltimore City's residents give voice to what's needed to fix the criminal justice system, released today by the Justice Policy Institute.  In a brilliant blend of narratives and policy recommendations, Bearing Witness lays bare the facts around crime and punishment in Maryland's largest city, while shining a light on the hope and resiliency of those most affected by decades of failed policies. This report was supported by the Open Society Institute.

"Bearing Witness provides a glimpse not only of the impact the criminal justice system has had on communities, but also on the hope and determination of Baltimore City residents," said Shakti Belway, the author of the report.  "Each person's narrative demonstrates their perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles and their willingness to provide support and opportunity for others in similar circumstances."

Compared to the rest of Maryland, Baltimore City faces a concentrated impact of the criminal justice system. Although home to roughly 600,000 people, in 2006 the Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center processed nearly 100,000 arrests and detained 44,825 individuals.  In 2008, 61 percent of newly-incarcerated people in Maryland prisons were from Baltimore City.  This intense involvement has taken its toll over the years on people, families, and neighborhoods.

"We felt that it was important for people most affected by the criminal justice system to have their voices heard, and a chance to talk about what they believe should be done to change the system for the better," said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. "Their comments and conclusions underscore that more treatment, comprehensive services for families and individuals, and alternatives to incarceration--including those rooted in the principles of restorative justice--benefit people and their communities."

Bearing Witness, a collaborative effort of community members and organizations, not only documents Baltimore City's experiences, it also serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of relying on the criminal justice system to solve social problems.The report identifies five areas that are critical to Baltimore City becoming a safer and healthier community:

  • Women and families have unique needs.  When a woman is sent to prison, her entire family also feels the punishment.  Treatment, interventions, and wrap-around services should be designed with the needs of women and their families in mind. 
  • Parole and probation serve as a revolving door that sends people back to prison.  The parole and probation system is too focused on catching people who are not meeting the conditions of release.  Instead, these systems should concentrate on ensuring that people get the support they need to stay out of prison.
  • A public health approach to drug addiction would eliminate the practice of sending people to prison who, in reality, need treatment.  Community-based treatment options that include the family and are available on demand would make this approach a reality.
  • Expanding opportunities and investing in solutions will preserve public safety and strengthen Baltimore City for years to come.  Rather than putting money into prisons and the criminal justice system, the community would benefit from stronger education and re-entry programs, job training, youth-oriented programs, and other community-based initiatives. 
  • Restorative justice and community conferencing are effective and less costly alternatives to incarceration.  The criminal justice system, as it is currently designed, does not meet the complex needs of victims, the community or the people who caused harm.

For more information about Bearing Witness or to schedule an interview, contact Lawanda Johnson at (202) 558-7974 x308 or ljohnson@justicepolicy.org.
 

 

 

The Justice Policy Institute is a non-profit public policy and research institute dedicated to ending society's reliance on incarceration and promoting effective and just solutions to social problems. To learn more about our research and publications visit www.justicepolicy.org

Location: 
Baltimore, MD
United States

Behind Bars in the Land of the Free

The Cato Institute is hosting an online debate/discussion on incarceration, featuring posts from experts with diverse perspectives on the issue. I haven't had time to dig into it yet, but Pete Guither has posted some interesting excerpts and reactions.

Incarceration: Too Many Americans Behind Bars at Too High a Cost, Says Pew Study

American states spent about $52 billion on corrections last year, the vast majority of it on prisons, and that's not smart, the Pew Center on the States said in a report released Monday. As a cost saving measure in a time of fiscal crisis at the statehouses, states should instead emphasize spending on community corrections.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (cdcr.ca.gov)
The study, 1 in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, reported that one in every 31 Americans is in jail or prison or on probation or parole. That's more than 7 million people under state supervision, and that's more than double the rate 25 years ago. The report adds that the real figure may be closer to 8 million because the numbers don't include people under state supervision in pre-trial diversion programs, such as drug courts.

The rates of correctional control vary by race and geography. One in eleven black adults (9.2%) are enjoying the tender mercies of the state, compared to one in 27 Hispanics (3.7%) and one in 45 whites (2.2%). With one of every 13 adults behind bars or on probation or parole, Georgia has the highest percentage of its population under surveillance, followed by Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio, and the District of Columbia.

"Violent and career criminals need to be locked up, and for a long time. But our research shows that prisons are housing too many people who can be managed safely and held accountable in the community at far lower cost," said Adam Gelb, director of the Center's Public Safety Performance Project, which produced the report.

But while prisons account for about 90% of the overall correction budget in the states, two-thirds of offenders are on probation or parole, not behind bars. Pressures to cut community corrections spending in the current crisis are penny wise but pound foolish, said the report.

"New community supervision strategies and technologies need to be strengthened and expanded, not scaled back," Gelb argued. "Cutting them may appear to save a few dollars, but it doesn't. It will fuel the cycle of more crime, more victims, more arrests, more prosecutions, and still more imprisonment."

The study recommended that states:

  • Sort offenders by risk to public safety to determine appropriate levels of supervision;
  • Base intervention programs on sound research about what works to reduce recidivism;
  • Harness advances in supervision technology such as electronic monitoring and rapid-result alcohol and drug tests;
  • Impose swift and certain sanctions for offenders who break the rules of their release but who do not commit new crimes; and
  • Create incentives for offenders and supervision agencies to succeed, and monitor their performance.

The report did not address the role of drug prohibition in swelling the nation's prison population, nor did it question whether drug offenders should be arrested in the first place, let alone placed under state surveillance or imprisoned.

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