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by Abra Pollock

Prison Population Swells When Republicans In White House

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Hardnosed sentencing policies that have caused the U.S. prison population to soar over the past three decades have done little to reduce crime, but have devastated low-income, minority communities, according to a report released here Monday.

Titled "Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America's Prison Population," the report found that the U.S. prison population has increased nearly eightfold since 1973 -- 196,429 to 1.5 million -- while crime rates have remained virtually the same. If sentencing policies aren't adjusted, the 40-page report said, the prison population over the next five years will swell by another 192,000 prisoners, costing an additional $27.5 billion in construction and operational costs on top of the $60 billion already spent annually on corrections.

"Our contemporary laws and justice system practices exacerbate the crime problem, unnecessarily damage the lives of millions of people, waste tens of billions of dollars each year, and create less than ideal social and economic conditions in many sections of our largest American cities," said the report, which was co-authored by nine leading criminologists and penal experts and coordinated by the criminal justice research group JFA Associates.

Experts attribute the surge in U.S. prison population numbers to a shift in policies and attitudes originating in the 1960s and early 1970s that favoured a "tough on crime" approach resulting in longer and harsher sentencing.

Responding to an increase in crime during the 1960s, politicians scrambled to win votes by adopting this stance, explained New York University professor David F. Greenberg and one of the report's authors.

Mandatory sentencing is just one example of a "tough on crime" policy arising out of this era. In mandatory sentencing, adopted first by the state of California in 1973, certain crimes are linked with a minimum number of years' imprisonment, such as 15 years for possession of a "hard" illegal drug -- leaving the judge with no flexibility in sentencing.

"Many of these policies have been politically inspired," according to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a national organization whose mission is to promote fairness and effectiveness in the criminal justice system, and who spoke on a panel at the report's release on Monday.

In comparison with other Western countries, the same crimes in the U.S. are often met with much harsher sentences. U.S. prisoners receive sentences twice as long as English prisoners, three times as long as Canadian prisoners, four times as long as Dutch prisoners, and five to 10 times as long as French prisoners, the report said. Yet each of these countries has a lower rate of violent crime than the United States.

"If putting people in prison was the way to create a safe society, then we should be the safest society in the world," Mauer said. "And that's clearly not the case."

Furthermore, the U.S.'s bloated sentencing policies have had a devastating impact on low-income minority communities, the report highlighted. Incarceration rates for African-Americans and Latinos are more than six times higher than for whites, and 60 percent of the prison population is either black or Latino.

At current rates, the report said, one-third of all African-American males will go to prison in their lives.

This racial makeup of the U.S. prison population "should be setting off alarm bells," Mauer said.

As Greenberg and other experts see it, the disproportionately high number of African-American and Latino males in prison contributes to a "vicious cycle" of social breakdown.

"At a certain point, you're taking so many people out of low-income, minority neighborhoods that you're disrupting the fabric of those communities, taking father figures out of children's lives," Greenberg said.

To counteract the high social and economic costs of the current U.S. prison system, the report outlined a series of recommendations, including an increased emphasis on community-based therapeutic programs to avert the behaviors that lead to imprisonment, such as substance abuse.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, 30 to 40 percent of current prison admissions are "victimless" crimes, meaning that the criminal act poses little or no threat to others. Drug-related offenses comprise 31 percent of all prison admissions within this category.

Beyond community-based therapeutic care, policymakers must take action with regards to reforming U.S. sentencing laws, as well as on policies related to re-entry for prisoners who have completed their terms, the report said.

Reducing sentences, eliminating the use of prison for parole or probation violators, and decriminalising "victimless" crimes were all offered as policy alternatives to the status quo.

Current laws that exclude ex-prisoners from receiving welfare, public housing, and other subsidies should be revisited, the report said. In order to help ex-prisoners integrate back into society, subsidies could be offered to government agencies to hire ex-prisoners, thereby helping to diminish any hesitations these employers may have.

"Our recommendations would reestablish practices that were the norm in America for most of the previous century, when incarceration rates were a fraction of what they are today," said the report.

Advocates for prison reform hope that this research will inspire policymakers who have been intimidated in the past by a "tough on crime" political climate to instead raise their voices in favour of reducing incarceration rates.

"It's one thing to 'act tough' [on crime], but that doesn't necessarily mean increasing results in public safety," Mauer said. "This report is grounded in trying to look at what works -- and what doesn't work."

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Albion Monitor   November 21, 2007   (

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