One million prisoners

November 14, 1994

The U.S. prison population has passed one million, the Bureau of Justice Statistics recently announced. As has been true for some time now, our nation's incarceration rate is far higher than that of any Western European democracy and of Japan.

There seem to be two main reasons for our dismal record. A review of the research in this field a few years ago concluded that "much of the disparity in international incarceration rates may be explained by higher crime rates for serious offenses [in the U.S.]." Our murder rate is at least seven times higher than in most European states. There are six times as many robberies here. According to some studies, arrest-based imprisonment rates for the crimes of robbery, burglary and theft are not greatly different in the U.S., Canada and England.

But that explanation doesn't go to what is truly alarming about the nation's passing the million mark. What disturbs almost all who study the U.S. criminal justice system is the acceleration of imprisonment. That million-plus is double what the prison population was a decade ago and five times what it was 25 years ago. Part of the reason for that is that Congress and state legislatures have increased the punishment for so many crimes, especially those related to drugs.

Many criminals could get non-prison punishment without causing threat to public safety. A study prepared for Attorney General ++ Janet Reno last winter showed that 21.2 percent of all federal prisoners were "low-level" offenders. That is, they had no violence in their records, no involvement in sophisticated criminal activity and no prior commitment. A 1991 survey of state prisoners concluded that 19 percent of them had commited only minor offenses and had no prior commitment in the previous 10 years or none at all. Most of them were in prison because of drug use or drug selling.

Keeping truly predatory criminals locked up is costly, but it is a bargain. One cost-benefit analysis of imprisoning robbers, burglars and the like concluded that the benefit was a minimum of $172,000, not counting the pain and suffering they inflict. But most of those nearly 200,000 low-level, minor-offense prisoners are not in that category. Spending $20,000 to $60,000 a year to keep them locked up is foolish.

Crime rates soared in the 1960s and did not level off till the prison-building boom began to have an effect. That effect can be maintained at less cost than now (about $25 billion a year), if lawmakers come to their senses and rewrite sentencing laws that are more reasonable -- and more attuned to public safety than to political hysteria.

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