Incarceration Fever About to Break? Prison Populations Leveling Off in Some Big States 2/16/01

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For nearly 30 years, the United States has been on an imprisonment binge, largely propelled by drug prohibition. The number of Americans (and foreigners) behind bars broke the two million mark last year. Now, however, come signs that the nation's appetite for incarceration may be sated.

New York State this year saw its first decline in prisoners in decades. Although the decline is small -- from 71,750 prisoners on February 1, 2000, to 70,293 on February 1 this year -- it marks a startling change of direction for the state. State officials project that the number of prisoners will decline to 65,200 by next February, which would constitute a 9% decline since 1999.

Those projections do not factor in any additional decreases that could result from changes in the state's harsh drug laws. Gov. Pataki earlier this year introduced a 10-point proposal to do just that, and it appears likely that some sort of reform package will be signed into law this year.

In Texas, home of the nation's second largest prison system, the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council reports that the number of inmates has remained essentially unchanged since last fall. According to the agency's executive director, Tony Fabelo, an increase in prisoners receiving parole was the primary reason for the stagnation.

Texas legislators, not noted for coddling criminals, have in recent years also begun to notice the huge costs of building and maintaining the state's massive incarceration industry. Some legislators are calling on the state parole board to expedite releases and tread more softly in revoking parole for minor administrative violations.

In Pennsylvania, a spokesman for the state corrections department told the New York Times that the department expected an increase of only 234 prisoners per year through 2006. The spokesman attributed the slow-down in the rate of increase to a larger number of halfway houses where prisoners can be paroled.

In California, with the nation's largest state prison system, the electorate last fall sent a strong message to the state's political class with Prop. 36, which will divert an estimated 25,000 drug offenders from prison into treatment. According to the latest figures from the California Department of Corrections, the prison population was already leveling-off. The 162,533 prisoners at the end of the third quarter of 2000 were only 152 more than a year earlier, a change of 0.0%, the department noted.

The trend is not uniform. In Illinois, the number of adult male prisoners has stabilized, but an increase in female and juvenile offenders has caused a 12% increase in total prison population since 1998, to 45,275, said Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Sergio Molina.

And Florida, too, continues to see increases, up from 68,599 in 1999 to 71,233 last year. Debbie Buchanan, a state prison spokeswoman, told the New York Times the increase was attributable to laws enacted in the mid-1990s that required prisoners to serve longer portions of their sentences.

[The Florida increase may also be partially explained by the state's reflexive response to cases such as that of the author's alcoholic brother, who served time in Florida in the early 1990s. He then returned to his home state of South Dakota, where he continued his career as a repeat DWI offender. After each DWI arrest and punishment by the state of South Dakota, the state of Florida then demanded he be returned as a probation violator. He is currently serving a seven-year Florida sentence for probation violation after having served a two-year sentence in South Dakota for the DWI.]

DRCNet spoke with Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project ( about the apparent change of direction in prison populations.

"This is possibly the beginning of the end of the incarceration mania," Mauer told DRCNet. "With the exception of a few lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in the state legislatures, I don't hear those same old demands for more prisons -- not from criminal justice practitioners, not from other leaders."

"Some noted conservatives, such as John DiIulio [just appointed to head Resident Bush's faith-based services initiative] are now saying we have enough prisons," Mauer pointed out. "If you took a cross section of criminal justice leaders, you would find a great sentiment for a more balanced approach, with great interest in community-based prevention and sentencing reform."

Although Mauer cautioned that not all the evidence was in, he said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the rate of increase in imprisonment is slowing nationally and that the incarceration rate itself is beginning to decline in some states.

When pressed for explanations for the slow-down, Mauer expressed some uncertainty. "We don't know exactly why this is happening now," he said, "although if I had to rank the factors, I would put the eight-year decrease in crime first, of course, followed by sentencing reform."

"Some states say their diversion programs are having an impact and they are making better use of sentencing options," Mauer added.

"I think this is encouraging, but the real challenge is to convince policymakers and the public that if we're leveling off at two million prisoners, that's still a disaster," Mauer emphasized. "We shouldn't forget that we've almost doubled the prison population in the last dozen years, that we have almost half a million drug offenders behind bars, and that a majority of prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes."

"We still need to push very aggressively for sharp reductions in the use of incarceration and make use of other options for nonviolent offenders," concluded Mauer.

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Issue #173, 2/16/01 Incarceration Fever About to Break? Prison Populations Leveling Off in Some Big States | California's "Three Strikes" Law Continues to Snare Mainly Drug and Nonviolent Offenders | John Ashcroft's Drug War | Oklahoma Meth Mess | One Third of Indigenous Prisoners in Mexico Imprisoned on Drug Charges | New Site Uses Traffic Movie to Raise Awareness, Free Daily DVD or Video Give-Away for Participants | Book Review: The Politics of Medical Marijuana | Errata: Ecstasy Conference, Calendar | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: A Postcard from Mexico
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