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May 22, 2012

Effective coverage of modern reentry issues

The Christian Science Monitor has this terrific, lengthy piece discussing modern reentry challenges facing the nation in the months and years ahead.  The piece is headlined "US prison inmates returning to society: How will they be received?".  Here are excerpts:

From California to New York, Texas to Michigan, a record number of convicted criminals are either being released from cells or serving time in community-based programs as states, under pressure to cut costs, adopt new philosophies on how to handle nonviolent offenders and many inmates incarcerated in the 1970s and '80s near the end of their terms. In some cases, lawsuits designed to reduce overcrowding are forcing authorities to open prison doors as well.

These days roughly 700,000 ex-cons are hitting US streets each year -- a new high, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group. While the vast majority of the inmates are nonviolent, some ... served sentences for serious crimes and are now winning parole in higher numbers.

The result is an unprecedented test -- of authorities' ability to monitor the newly released prisoners, of social service groups' capacity to help them forge new lives, of the inmates' willingness to start over, of communities' tolerance to let them do so.

Nowhere is this social experiment playing out with more intensity than in California, the nation's largest jailer. It is looking to move as many as 33,000 prisoners out of state penitentiaries over the next year alone, many of whom could end up on the streets. It will provide the country's clearest look at how ready many criminals are to be on the outside -- and society's readiness to have them there.

America's arc in getting to this point involved a lot of clanking cell doors.  From 1973 to 2009, the US prison population grew by more than 700 percent -- the result of an uptick in crime, huge numbers of drug arrests, and tough sentencing laws.  At the end of that time more than 1.6 million people sat behind bars in federal and state penitentiaries, the largest inmate population in the world.

Yet in 2010, for the first time in 38 years, the US prison population declined.  Experts cite myriad reasons for the modest (0.3 percent) drop: a decrease in crime in many cities, more use of alternative sentencing, and fewer people put back in prison for parole violations.  Early release of inmates for good behavior was also a factor.

Half the states in the country reported a decrease in their prison populations last year. The number of inmates in Michigan, which hit a peak of 51,500 in 2006, now sits around 43,500.  The state has closed down 17 penitentiaries and prison camps as a result.

Similarly, New York State has emptied more than 15,000 prison beds over the past decade, mostly through sentencing reform.  New Jersey's prison population has dipped, too, in part because of early parole grants.  Even rawhide-tough Texas gave up plans five years ago to build eight new prisons, channeling the money instead into probation programs, outpatient treatment, and drug courts.

"We're starting to see a triumph of sound science over sound bites," says Adam Gelb, who studies criminal justice issues at the Pew Center on the States, a Washington research group. "State leaders from both parties are adopting research-based strategies that are more effective and less expensive than putting more low-risk of-fenders into $30,000-a-year taxpayer-funded prison cells."

While states are emptying cell beds for different reasons, the one common motive is the high cost of keeping so many people behind bars.  States now spend more than $51 billion a year on prisons -- the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Syria.  Prisons represent one of the fastest-growing items in state budgets at a time of pressing fiscal penury. Many states face fraught decisions over whether to spend money on classrooms or concertina wire.

Reducing prison budgets, in part by sentencing nonviolent offenders to programs outside prison walls, is one of the few issues many groups on the left and right now agree on. "There's more cooperation on this topic than on any other that I can think of right now," says Marc Levin of Right on Crime, a conservative group whose supporters include former presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, antitax crusader Grover Norquist, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

May 22, 2012 at 09:58 PM | Permalink

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How about jobs? That is the greatest anti-recidivism aide.

Posted by: tim rudisill | May 24, 2012 11:36:36 AM

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