By the end of last year, the number of people in prison or jail or on probation or parole in the United States hit an all-time record of 6.6 million, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). The number increased by 147,000 from that in 2000 and was 50% higher than the 1990 figure of 440,000.
"The overall figures suggest that we've come to rely on the criminal justice system as a way of responding to social problems in a way that is unprecedented," said the Sentencing Project's (http://www.sentencingproject.org) Marc Mauer in a statement commenting on the figures.
Nora Callahan of the November Coalition (http://www.november.org), an advocacy group for drug war prisoners and their loved ones, was a bit harder-edged. "The gap between what is and what should be grows wider. I don't believe the public is behind this policy of imprisonment any longer," she said. "The facts are in; this failed experiment needs to end."
But Callahan also saw a ray of immediate hope. "The states, at least, are finally realizing they cannot afford this injustice," she said. "As more and more states face budget crises, we will see them looking at drug law violators as a first choice for early release."
If those prisoners do get out, most of them will likely join the now almost 4 million people on probation or 730,000 on parole at the end of last year. In 1990, there were less than one million on probation and parole combined.
Persons under some form of correctional supervision now constitute 3.1% of the adult population, or one out of every 32 adults, BJS reported. Many of them are drug law offenders. In fact, drug offenders constitute the single largest group of probationers, 25%, followed by drunk drivers (18%), minor traffic offenders (7%) and wife-beaters (7%).
The fact that the number of probationers and parolees rose at a faster rate than the number of people behind bars (2.8% for probationers, 1.0% for parolees, 1.1% for prisoners) is both heartening and disturbing. The US could be moving from a quick resort to imprisonment to the implementation of kinder, gentler but more pervasive means of keeping suspect populations under the careful gaze of the state.
And some observers do think the increase in probationers and parolees in part is taking the place of incarceration. "The collection of reforms, from drug courts to treatment in lieu of incarceration to sentence reforms like getting rid of mandatory minimums and expanding community corrections, have the effect of redirecting people from prison to probation," said Nick Turner, director of national programs for the Vera Institute of Justice, in an interview with the Associated Press.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2001 is available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/ppus01.htm online.