No bells and whistles went off and no balloons dropped from the ceiling, but sometime last year, somewhere in the land of the free, the jailhouse door slammed shut behind the nation's two millionth prisoner. That's according to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, which reported on Monday that as of June 30, 2002, the number of people in state or federal prison was 1,355,748 and the number in local jails was 665,475, leaving a total of 2,021,223 people behind bars in the United States. Nearly four million more people are on parole or probation.
The two million-plus count marked a 5.4% increase in the prison population, the largest gain since 1997, as jails and prisons held nearly 35,000 more persons than a year earlier. An aggressive federal government accounted for more than 40% of that increase, growing at an annual rate of 5.7% compared to a 1% annual growth rate for state prison populations. The federal Bureau of Prisons is now the nation's largest prison jurisdiction with 162,000 prisoners, surpassing the gulag states of Texas (158,000) and California (160,000).
Interestingly, Texas and California, along with New York, the fourth largest prison state, saw decreases in the number of prisoners, driven in all three states by financial concerns and in California by the implementation of Proposition 36, the "treatment not jail" initiative passed by California voters in 2000. The federal prison system, which like the rest of the federal government apparently operates without having to worry about budgets and finances, continues to swell, driven largely by federal prosecutions of drug law violators. Drug violators now make up more than 60% of the federal prison population and more than 20% in the states.
The growth in the prison population is also fueled by the disproportionate imprisonment of black men in their twenties and early thirties, a whopping 12% of whom are doing prison or jail time. The 12% figure is an all-time high, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported. Among white men in the same age group, the figure is 1.6%.
"This reflects a real culture of punishment in some parts of the country," said Nora Callahan, director of the prisoner advocacy group The November Coalition (http://www.november.org). "We have been traveling the country and we see real disparities between rich and poor areas and between white and black areas," she told DRCNet. "If you are poor or black or, god forbid, poor and black, you are more heavily policed -- and it isn't Officer Friendly. The parents of white middle-class kids have to understand that if police were watching their children the way they watch black kids, those middle-class kids would be in jail, too."
"The relentless increase in prison and jail populations can best be explained as the legacy of an entrenched infrastructure of imprisonment that has been embedded within the criminal justice system over the last 30 years," said Sentencing Project (http://www.sentencingproject.org) director Malcolm Young in a press release greeting the latest figures. Noting that violent crime is at its lowest level since 1974, Young added that it is "policy, not crime rates, that are driving up incarceration rates." Young pointed to tough mandatory sentencing policies for drug offenders as one of the primary culprits.
But it wasn't only the usual suspects who were attacking sentencing policies in the wake of the Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Newspapers around the country have begun to respond. In North Carolina, the Asheville Citizen-Times called the numbers "sobering, if not downright alarming." In Kentucky, where a budget crisis led the governor to release hundreds of people early, the Louisville Courier-Journal called the imprisonment of 12% of young black men "tragic" and called for alternative programs. "Such programs aren't free, but they're far less costly than prison, which often accomplishes little but to turn out better criminals."
And the New York Times weighed in as well. In a Wednesday editorial, the nation's "newspaper of record" blamed "harsh sentencing policies" and "the excesses of the war on drugs" for a prison population unparalleled in the world. "When a prisoner is a first offender guilty of a nonviolent crime, a jail term is often just a very expensive method of turning a young person who could be set on the right path into a hardened criminal. It seems far more sensible to reconsider tough mandatory sentencing laws and build in more discretion for judges to deviate from guidelines. The money saved could be redirected to alternatives to prison, including drug treatment and violence prevention programs for youths," the Times wrote. "When violent crime rates were higher, many politicians were afraid to be seen as soft on crime. But now that crime has receded and the public is more worried about taxes and budget deficits, it would not require extraordinary courage for elected officials to do the right thing and scale back our overuse of jails and prison cells."
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is not an elected official, but he, too, is speaking out. Appearing before Congress Wednesday to testify about the Supreme Court's budget, Kennedy harshly criticized mandatory minimum sentences. "In many cases, our sentences are too long," he said. "Two million people in prison is just unacceptable." Justice Clarence Thomas, who accompanied Kennedy to the hearing, did not comment, but reportedly nodded his head in agreement at Justice Kennedy's remark.
Meanwhile, C-Span viewers Thursday were able to watch the spectacle of Congress debating whether to add yet more mandatory minimum sentences and further restrict judicial discretion in sentencing as it considered the "what about the children?" Amber Alert bill.
Advocates had predicted, based on prior trends, that the two million prisoner landmark would be reached in February 2000 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/124.html#feb15). A slowdown in the rate of increase of the incarcerated population, however, delayed that occurrence for over three years.