Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘alternatives to incarceration

Poll: Most Americans See Prison System as a Failure, Would Support Alternatives to Incarceration

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Some interesting polling data out from Angus Reid (download the full poll at this PDF link):

  • 75% of Americans polled disagree with the statement that “the prison system in the U.S. does a good job at helping prisoners become law-abiding”
  • 72% support alternative penalties other than prison for non-violent offenders — interestingly, this figure is highest in the South (76%) and lowest in the West (65%)
  • 67% disagree with the statement that “the justice system in the U.S. treats every person fairly”
  • 42% disagree with the statement that “the criminal courts in the U.S. do a good job in determining whether or not an accused person is guilty”
  • 36% express “complete confidence” or “a lot of confidence” in their state and local police. For federal agencies, that figure is 35% for the FBI, 26% for the ATF and DEA
  • 22% express “complete confidence” in their local criminal courts; 25% in the Supreme Court
  • 41% say they fear being a victim of violent crime “not too much”; 11% say they fear it “to a great extent”

Readers who can identify any shortcomings in the polling method or pollster are invited to comment, but on the face of it, these numbers suggest a pretty widespread sentiment that the criminal justice system is a failure. Of course, the prison system could fail at “helping prisoners become law-abiding” while succeeding at other goals, like retribution. But the fact that so many poll respondents say they’d support alternatives to incarceration suggests that maybe retribution for its own sake is not their top priority, or maybe that they think we’re using prison on offenders for whom it’s an excessive sanction under a retributive theory.

“Wisconsin prison population 2.5 times larger than Minnesota’s”

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That’s the headline of this local newspaper report on a study comparing the prison populations of the neighboring Midwestern states. The study offers an interesting natural experiment on how much policy decisions — as opposed to sociological factors or crime rate — drive mass incarceration. Minnesota and Wisconsin have roughly similar demographics, geography, size (~ 5 million people), crime rates, etc. (though I’m sure native Midwesterners could point out differences I’m overlooking, they seem similar enough to compare), and yet the two have taken vastly divergent paths:

In 2008, Wisconsin had more than 23,000 people in state prisons, compared to fewer than 9,000 in Minnesota. Yet, despite the marked difference in prison populations, Minnesota had more residents under some form of correctional control–prison, jail, probation, or parole. …

Wisconsin’s larger prison population primarily reflects events that occurred from 1993 to 1999. During that period, Wisconsin added more than six times as many prisoners as Minnesota did. One factor in the rising number of prisoners here was parole changes. Due to heightened visibility of crime as a policy issue, public concern over insufficient prison terms, and resulting political pressure, Wisconsin’s willingness to parole prisoners diminished. According to some estimates, the change effectively extended prison sentences by 16% to 18%.

Taking a different approach, Minnesota passed a community corrections law in the early 1970s and felony sentencing guidelines in the 1980s in an effort to contain the state’s prison population. As a result, growth in Wisconsin’s prison population was two times as fast as Minnesota’s in the 1990s. However, from 1999 through 2008, the number of prisoners in Minnesota rose 50.8%, compared with 9.7% in Wisconsin.

You can also see the difference by comparing Minnesota and Wisconsin using the Sentencing Project’s interactive map, which shows that Minnesota incarcerates 137 per 100,000 residents, while Wisconsin incarcerates 374 per 100,000. Wisconsin’s rate is still well below high-incarceration Southern states (which incarcerate 600-800 per 100,000), and it’s not particularly high for the Midwest, but the comparison with Minnesota suggests it could easily be lower with some targeted policy reforms.

Written by sara

April 28, 2010 at 9:01 am

South Carolina Debates Sentencing Reforms

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The Palmetto State has seen its prison population triple since 1983, with much of that increase coming from nonviolent offenders and — similar to, although not as extreme as, California — technical parole violators. According to the Sentencing Project’s interactive map (which, by the way, is a great source of data), South Carolina currently incarcerates over 36,000 men and women, with another 40,000+ on probation or parole, all at a cost of $629 million per year. Though it’s worth noting that unlike some other states, the incarceration rate in South Carolina is not hugely disparate between blacks and whites (the ratio is 1.1:1 — compare, for instance, Connecticut, which has a 6.6:1 ratio. As you can see, the “Compare by States” feature of the Sentencing Project map is really handy). The combination of budget woes and prison overcrowding came to a head in South Carolina earlier this year, when the state had to decide whether to release 3,000 prisoners or run a $29 million deficit.

With the goals of hemming in prison spending and alleviating overcrowding, the South Carolina legislature is currently considering a proposal to provide alternate sanctions for nonviolent offenders. Here’s a description of the bill, from a Greenville News editorial in favor of the legislation:

The bill further defines violent and nonviolent crimes, calls for streamlining sentencing to ensure there is room in state prisons for the most violent offenders, and reduces sentences for some nonviolent crimes. It also establishes options for community-based programs such as the drug courts that have been effective in Greenville County.

The changes were proposed by the legislatively appointed Sentencing Reform Commission and were published earlier this year. The need for sentencing reform is evident. … Nearly half of the system’s inmates are being held for nonviolent offenses. …

According to the Sentencing Reform Commission, the proposed changes would save taxpayers $92 million in Corrections’ operating costs over five years. They also would save Corrections the estimated $317 million it would cost to add the prison space that would be needed absent the changes.

It’s worth noting, though, that the bill would also lengthen some sentences: the Orangeburg Times and Democrat reports, for instance, that it would increase the maximum penalty for attempted murder to 30 years (from a current maximum of 10 years).

The Fiscal Case for Criminal Justice Reform

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As prison populations grow each year, governments dedicate larger budgets to corrections. In 2006, justice-related expenditures for federal, state, and local governments totaled $214 billion. Corrections accounted for $69 billion, law enforcement $98 billion, and judicial $46 billion — an overall increase of more than six times in the past three decades.

A significant portion of prisoners committed crimes that were not violent or sexual, and that did not involve serious property loss or damage. Many of these individuals can be safely supervised through alternative means and still serve a sentence that fits the seriousness of their crime. Evidence-based alternatives are already in use in some places, usually for pre-trial supervision, probation, parole, or early release. Alternatives tend to be less costly than incarceration while also serving to rehabilitate the offender, which reduces recidivism. Thus, properly applied, alternatives save taxpayer money in both the short term — by saving incarceration costs — and the long term — by reducing recidivism and repeated system involvement.

National Council on Crime and Delinquency, Special Report: The Extravagance of Imprisonment Revisited (January 2010).

Written by sara

February 10, 2010 at 11:40 am

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