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March 10, 2008

New York Times editorial on "Prison Nation"

Joining the chorus of papers commenting on the recent Pew Center report, "One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008" (discussed here), today the New York Times has this editorial titled "Prison Nation."  Here are excerpts:

After three decades of explosive growth, the nation’s prison population has reached some grim milestones: More than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars. One in nine black men, ages 20 to 34, are serving time, as are 1 in 36 adult Hispanic men.

Nationwide, the prison population hovers at almost 1.6 million, which surpasses all other countries for which there are reliable figures. The 50 states last year spent about $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections, up from nearly $11 billion in 1987.  Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan and Oregon devote as much money or more to corrections as they do to higher education.

These statistics, contained in a new report from the Pew Center on the States, point to a terrible waste of money and lives. They underscore the urgent challenge facing the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety. The key, as some states are learning, is getting smarter about distinguishing between violent criminals and dangerous repeat offenders, who need a prison cell, and low-risk offenders, who can be handled with effective community supervision, electronic monitoring and mandatory drug treatment programs, combined in some cases with shorter sentences.

Persuading public officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach to prison policy is a daunting prospect, however, not least because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry.... A rising number of states are broadening their criminal sanctions with new options for low-risk offenders that are a lot cheaper than incarceration but still protect the public and hold offenders accountable....  These are signs that the country may finally be waking up to the fiscal and moral costs of bulging prisons.

Though hitting a lot of important points, I was a bit diappointed that this editorial fails to assail the presidential candidates (and member of the media) for ignoring these issues during the 2008 campaign.  Though there indeed are "signs that the country may finally be waking up to the fiscal and moral costs of bulging prisons," it is long overdue that prominent national politicians take more of a leadership role in trying to educate voters as to the "terrible waste of money and lives" that mass incarceration can involve.

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March 10, 2008 at 03:24 PM | Permalink


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Practicing civil attorney - mostly corporate law

Two questions:

1) Is the problem one of both federal AND state overincarceration, or mostly state? If mostly state, why would federal presidential candidates be concerned?

2) Congress sets laws, the courts enforce them, including sentencing. Why would the candidates for president matter in such a case? Why should a president be asked for or held to any view?

--Jonathan Watson

Posted by: Jonathan` | Mar 10, 2008 3:46:50 PM

I am going out on a limb, but what the hell, I'll do it anyway. Apparently, there are two suspects (or persons of interest) in the investigation of the murder of the UNC student body president. It's, of course, highly likely that these two miscreants have substantial criminal records, which, means that they probably should have been behind bars. Lenient sentencing is still a problem in America. And the price continues to be paid in blood.

Perhaps, it is unfair to argue by anecdotes, but it seems a good deal of random murder victims fall prey to people who never should have gotten out. The Petits spring to mind, as does the poor woman shot at CNN headquarters.

Posted by: federalist | Mar 10, 2008 4:20:59 PM

Jonathan, these are fair questions, though I wonder if anyone ever asks them before wondering about a candidate's views on public schools or the death penalty. Indeed, there was NO real federal death penalty in 1988 when this because a huge issue in the Bush/Dukakis campaign.

Beyond this broader political realities, in fact the federal government has a huge impact on state incarceration policies. The feds have through various means encouraged states to eliminate parole and to ramp up sex offender laws. In addition, the federal prison population and structure indirectly influences a lot of state criminal justice realities.

As law professors like to say, this is a seemless web in many ways.

Posted by: Doug B. | Mar 10, 2008 5:05:21 PM

Every person without a criminal record that is convicted of a crime probably should have been convicted long ago. The only way to remedy this is to put more people in jail. Our 1% incarceration level is 34% too low. Federalist REFUSED to endorse my common-sense 35% incarceration rate which would prevent many tragedies.,

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 10, 2008 9:48:12 PM

Good one S.cotus! Have another toke.

Posted by: Major Mori | Mar 11, 2008 6:15:28 AM

What are you talking about, Major? Are you with us or against us on the optimal incarceration rate?

Posted by: S.cotus | Mar 11, 2008 6:49:23 AM

I nearly always have problems with federal interference with typically state issues, and / or those driven by the legislature.

For insance, I wish the executive would stay out of tax issues (it gives Congress a free pass and license to point fingers). Asking the executive to write tax policy is very problematic, even if it does only involve sending bills to Congress - its too easy for Congress to rubber-stamp.

In addition,

- The executive should let Congress declare war.
- The aforementioned prisons issue (except in case of federal crimes).
- Educational funding (and the federal oversight it brings with it)



Posted by: Jonathan | Mar 11, 2008 1:35:17 PM

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