In its latest annual report on the US "correctional population," the number of people under the control of the criminal justice system, the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has found that almost 6.9 million Americans are in jail or prison or on probation or parole as of December 31, 2003. That number marks an increase of 130,700 from the previous year and represents 3.2% of the adult population of the US. In other words, one out of every 32 adults in the US is under some form of correctional supervision.
Some 691,000 people were in city or county jails, while nearly 1.4 million were in state or federal prisons, making a total of 2,078,570 people behind bars in the US, also an all-time high. Those figures represent a 3.9% increase in the jail population and a 2.3% increase in the prison population. Nearly half a million, or almost one-quarter, of these prisoners are doing time for drug crimes, according to earlier BJS reports.
In addition to the nearly 2.1 million prisoners, BJS found that slightly more than four million people were on probation and nearly 775,000 on parole. The number of probationers increased 1.2% over the previous year, while the number of parolees climbed by 3.1% Generally, parolees have served prison time and are on parole for further supervision, while probationers have been sentenced to criminal justice system supervision in lieu of a prison sentence.
The number of probationers increased by more than 49,000, 1.4% over the previous year but slightly less than half the annual average increase since 1995, BJS reported. Drug offenders constituted 25% of all probationers. The number of parolees increased by more than 24,000, an increase of 3.1% over 2002. And unlike the probation numbers, this year's rate of increase in parolees exceeds the average of 1.7% annually since 1995.
A staggering number of parolees are sent back to prison before finishing their supervision periods, BJS found. Of those people discharged from parole, 38% were sent back to prison, either for technical violations such as failing a drug test or missing an appointment, or for committing new crimes. Another 9% have simply vanished. But it is also worth noting that nearly half of all parolees completed their supervisory periods without committing a new crime or violating the terms of parole.
The continuing growth in the correctional population comes despite a decade of lower crime rates and the introduction of sentencing reforms in a number of states. Sentencing experts point to a number of factors in explaining the apparent contradiction.
"What we are seeing here is the long-term effect of longer sentences," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project (http://www.sentencingproject.org), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit which seeks alternatives to the heavy reliance on incarceration in the US. "Even though the number of people being convicted of crimes has not increased that much, the amount of time people are doing in prison has," he told DRCNet. "With policies like California's three-strikes law people are doing decades-long sentences. We recently did a report showing there are 127,000 people now serving life sentences (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/338/life.shtml). While there have been some positive developments, such as the drug offender diversion initiatives, those have been offset by these punitive sentencing policies."
"There is no reason for this increase," said Eric Lotke, research director for the Justice Policy Institute (http://www.justicepolicy.org), another nonprofit dedicated to seeking more just alternatives to massive incarceration. "This is going along on auto-pilot, on bureaucratic inertia," he told DRCNet. "Until someone makes an effort to rein this in and says we need to restrain these costs and these intrusions on our civil liberties, it will be as it has been."
The Sentencing Project's Mauer also cited the impact of parole revocations. "The percentage of people returning to prison for parole violations has doubled in the last 20 years," he said. "Often that is a function of inadequate services for parolees. They are drug tested and get revoked if they're using drugs, even though there is insufficient drug treatment. Community-based supervision agencies don't have the resources to help these people, and that leads to high failure rates. It's a vicious cycle," he said.
"We are sending too many parolees back to prison," JPI's Lotke said flatly. "BJS does not disaggregate its statistics on this, but a large number of people are going back to prison for technical violation like a dirty drug test, not for committing new crimes. California especially is returning large numbers of people to prison on technical violations. And because it is California, if half of the parolees returning to prison are for technical violations, we're talking about thousands of people and millions of dollars."
Lotke agreed that parole services are inadequate. "You have to look at parole in two parts. The first is a discretionary decision: Should this person be released? The second part is to actually be on parole and out in the community," he said. "What has happened is that people have cut back on parole releases because they are politically unpopular, but at the same time, they unthinkingly cut back on supervision as well. We need supervision and we need more it," he said, "but with a different emphasis. We need good quality supervision trying to help people succeed as opposed to busting them when they fail."
The Sentencing Project's Mauer also pointed to continuing high arrest rates. "The crime is down, but arrest rates are not, especially with drugs, where the arrests are really more discretionary," he said. "It seems like an endless number of people are going to be arrested and incarcerated for drug offenses. There are some signs of change, but so far there is no letting up."
Mauer also suggested that the rise of drug courts and other diversion programs could be contributing to the numbers. "Some of these programs are diverting people from prison, and some are bringing people into the system who probably would not have been arrested if there was not a drug court option," he said, "so there is a net-widening effect."
Still, both Mauer and Lotke agreed that because of restrictions on people who can use the drug courts, their impact is limited. "The drug courts aren't handling major traffic," said Lotke. "The number of people going through drug courts is in the thousands or tens of thousands, while the number of drug arrests is more than a million each year."
Policy decisions, not crime rates, play a decisive role, said Lotke. BJS reported that two states, California and Texas, accounted for more than one million of the nearly five million on probation or parole, he noted. "Those numbers are too big," he said. "All you have to do is contrast California and Texas with New York, another large, urbanized state. If you look at the numbers, and especially the growth in recent year, it is much smaller in New York. It is not because there is less crime in New York, it is because of policy choices."
To read the report, "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2003" and associated documents, visit http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/ppus03.htm online.