U.S. prisoners increase, crime drops

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The United States’ prison population grew last year despite a declining crime rate, costing the federal government and states an estimated $40 billion a year at a time of rampant budget shortfalls.

The inmate population of more than 2.1 million last year represented a 2.6 percent increase over the year before, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that was released yesterday. Preliminary FBI statistics showed a 0.2 percent drop in overall crime during the same span.

Experts say mandatory sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders, are a major reason inmate populations have risen for 30 years. About 1 out of every 143 U.S. residents was in federal, state or local custody at year’s end.

“The nation needs to break the chains of our addiction to prison, and find less costly and more effective policies like treatment,” said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. “We need to break the cycle.”

Others say tough sentencing laws, such as the “three strikes” laws that can put repeat offenders behind bars for life, are a chief reason for the drop in crime. The Justice Department, for example, ordered Bureau of Prisons officials this year to stop sending so many white-collar and nonviolent criminals to halfway houses.

“The prospect of prison, more than any other sanction, is feared by white-collar criminals and has a powerful deterrent effect,” Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said in a memo announcing the change.

Yet the cost of housing, feeding and caring for a prison inmate is roughly $20,000 per year, or about $40 billion nationwide, using 2002 figures, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes alternatives to prison. Construction costs are about $100,000 per cell.

Even as these costs keeping climbing, the federal government is tackling a giant budget deficit, and 31 states this year are cutting spending to deal with shortfalls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The prison population and budget figures, taken together, should be setting off alarm bells in state capitols,” said Jason Zeidenberg, director of policy and research for the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on ending reliance on incarceration.

Drug offenders make up more than half of all federal prisoners. The federal penal system, which has tough sentencing policies for drug offenses, is the nation’s largest at more than 151,600 — an increase of 4.2 percent compared with 2001.

During the same period, state prison and jail populations grew 2.4 percent. Prison alternative advocates credit the lower growth rate to moves in some states to divert drug offenders to treatment programs and other innovations.

Texas, for example, passed a drug treatment-alternative law and found that its prison population last year remain virtually unchanged from 2001. Ohio, which revised its sentencing and parole guidelines in the late 1990s, had its prison and jail population rise 0.8 percent last year.

“The way to reduce prison spending is to reduce the number of people in prison and the number of prisons, like some states across the country have done,” said Rose Braz, director of Critical Resistance, a California-based group opposed to prison expansion.

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