How State Prisons Are Staying a Step Ahead of the Feds
Headlines read out "overcrowded prisons" across the nation. Many
federal prisons are above maximum capacity. In fact, the U.S. prison population
has increased eightfold since the 1980s. As federal incarceration rates
continue on an upward trend, state prison populations are beginning to
decline. Multiple states even closed prisons last year.
The Justice Department is faced with a dilemma. Records show that smarter
policing and crime prevention combined with alternative sentencing options
are not just cost-effective , they are more effective overall in staving
off recidivism. However, a third of the Justice Department's budget
is being expended on sustaining an overcrowded federal prison system.
They just don't have the funds to invest in these alternative sentencing
programs when $6 billion of their budget goes directly to the Bureau of Prisons.
The 1980s gave birth to phrases like "tough on crime" and brought
America's "war on drugs" into the public eye. Lawmakers
started to pass mandatory minimum sentencing laws, three-strike policies
and truth in sentencing. At first, this worked, but the tough-on-crime
stance had unintended consequences. Many low-level, non-violent criminal
offenders ended up serving 25-to-life terms, much like criminals convicted
Crime rates are at some of the lowest levels they've been in years
and prisons have become a proverbial money pit. States have taken notice,
and have begun to pass legislation and implement programs with less of
an emphasis on incarceration and a heavier shift to inmate rehabilitation.
Many of these states report a continually dropping crime rate.
States Move to Amend Sentencing Laws, Invest in Alternative Programs
Lowering the crime rate no longer necessitates incarceration alone. Take
a look at
this infographic from The Pew Charitable Trust. Data indicates that the states that made
the highest cuts in prison population saw bigger drops in the overall
crime rate than states where the number of inmates was increasing.
More than half of the states in the U.S. have begun to experiment with
sentencing alternatives like drug rehabilitation, home confinement, ankle
bracelets and supervised probation – 29 to be exact.
Do these alternative programs really work? Studies indicate that they do.
Data from the last few decades indicates that more than half of inmates
released from prison will re-offend and end back up in the prison system,
many of them within a year.
The federal government is perhaps late to the game when it comes to implementing
these programs because they're not as heavily restricted by budget
as states are.
Things to Come
Most of the inmates in federal prison are serving time for serious crimes
like murder, assault and kidnapping, right? Turns out, no. This describes
only 3 percent of our nation's federal prison population. Congress
has taken notice.
Some sentencing amendment bills have already been passed and last month,
President Obama himself offered early release to eight inmates sentenced
under old mandatory sentencing laws. In the immediate future, we could
very well see retroactive sentencing laws and early release of federal
prison inmates. Stay tuned.