Too Much Prison

JOSEPH M. BESSETTE

November 29, 1992|By JOSEPH M. BESSETTE

We send too many people to prison for too long and at too great a cost. It is a familiar refrain. We hear it from advocacy groups, columnists, academics and legal organizations.

The purpose is clear: to mold public sentiment against punishment and incarceration. Yet a growing body of data, most of it published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the U.S.

Department of Justice, tells quite a different story. These data demonstrate the striking contrast between this myth of American punitiveness and the reality of crime and justice in the United States.

First, very few people arrested for felonies in the United States end up sentenced to state prisons.

Felonies are the most serious criminal offenses and include such crimes as murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, arson, drug trafficking and weapons offenses.

Most recent data show that the odds that a person arrested for a felony will eventually be sentenced to state prison for a year or more are about one in 10, and for violent felonies about one in eight. (Another four in 10 will be sentenced to a local jail for less than a year, many for just a few days or weeks).

Second, many convicted felons are not incarcerated at all.

Data from a 1988 national survey show that state courts throughout the United States convicted 667,000 people of felonies that year. (Federal courts convicted another 31,000 of felonies.) State courts sentenced 44 percent of the convicted felons to state prison, 25 percent to local jail (again, usually for less than a year) and 31 percent to probation or some other non-incarceration sentence.

This means that more than 200,000 convicted felons received no prison or jail time. Of these, 69,000 were convicted of rape, aggravated assault, drug trafficking or burglary.

Third, our state prisons are filled with convicted violent offenders and convicted recidivists.

According to a comprehensive 1991 federal survey, about three-fifths of state prison inmates had a record of at least one violent crime conviction. One in five prisoners was serving time for murder or sexual assault.

For all state prison inmates, 79 percent were serving at least their second sentence to prison or probation; 60 percent their third; 45 percent their fourth; and 18 percent at least their seventh. Altogether, 93 percent of state prison inmates were either convicted violent offenders or convicted recidivists.

Fourth, state prisoners currently serve very short sentences.

We are told that we keep criminals in prison "too long" but never how long. And the reason is clear: Those who promulgate the punitiveness myth do not want us to know just how little time criminals actually spend behind bars in the United States.

For example, of the several hundred thousand inmates released from state prisons in 1988, half served a year and a month in prison or less. For drug traffickers, the median time served was one year; for burglars, 13 months; for arsonists, 17 months; for rapists, three years, and for murderers, 5 1/2 years.

Finally, the great majority of those under correctional supervision are serving their sentences in the community, not behind bars.

Data from the end of 1990 show that of the 4.4 million offenders then serving criminal sentences in the United States, fully 74 percent -- more than 3 million -- were serving their time in the community (on probation or parole), while the balance were in prisons or jails. Is this kind of ratio, three convicted criminals on probation or parole for every one in prison or jail, the mark of a society obsessed with locking up criminals and throwing away the key?

Those who argue that we punish criminals too severely have been less than forthcoming about the consequences of their schemes to lessen punishment for criminal offenses.

They should say straight out that they want to see even more than 200,000 convicted felons released by courts to our communities each year without time behind bars -- perhaps 300,000 or 400,000? -- and that they want murderers to serve less than 5 1/2 years in prison, rapists less than three years, burglars less than 13 months and drug traffickers less than a year.

Does anyone really believe that these kinds of changes would serve justice, increase citizen confidence in the nation's governing institutions or make for a safer society?

Joseph Bessette is associate professor of government and ethics at Claremont (Calif.) McKenna College and former acting director of the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.

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