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Bursting At the Seams

By | November 24, 2009

Drug incarcerations, prison overcrowding, and community corrections

America’s prisons are overflowing. According to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2007 over 1.5 million people were imprisoned in state and federal jails, up from 320,000 in 1980. Twenty-five percent of current prisoners were convicted of drug crimes – possession and distribution – compared to just six percent in 1980. The discrepancy is, primarily, due to a spike in drug offenses in the mid to late 1980s caused by increasingly harsh penalties for possession and distribution of crack cocaine, which appeared in inner-city neighborhoods in 1984. Since then, the radical sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, combined with mandatory minimum sentencing policies such as the “three strikes” law in California, have swelled prison populations, forcing states to decide what to do with excess prisoners. In addition to overcrowding, the high costs of imprisonment are draining state budgets encouraging reliance on cheaper alternatives to incarceration, particularly programs that focus on rehabilitation and job training for non-violent offenders. While these programs are by no means the only solution on the table, and cannot in themselves reverse incarceration trends, they are becoming the first recourse for states with overcrowded prisons.


The Crack Epidemic

Around 1980, incarceration rates began to rise significantly in the United States. However, “in the late ’80s and throughout the …  ’90s, they were really accelerated by the War on Drugs, in particular trying to do something about crack cocaine,” professor Anthony Braga of the Harvard Kennedy School and advisor to Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, told the HPR. Lawmakers thought that increasing the penalties for possession and distribution of crack would create a deterrent effect, thereby lessening the violence that accompanied the drug. “The key event in that drug war was the 1988 Anti Drug Abuse Act, which created large 100:1 disparities between the possession of crack and powder cocaine,” said Braga. In other words, the same mandatory minimum sentence was required for possession of five grams of crack as for the trafficking of 500 grams of powder cocaine. Unfortunately, crack use rose instead of declining, and the incarceration rate rose with it.

Though there are major problems with mandatory minimum sentences, the laws are heavily entrenched. As California State Senator Mark Leno, Chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, told the HPR, “America’s failed war on drugs still carries political cache.” Elected officials entrusted with public safety risk accusations that they are “soft on crime” if they advocate loosening mandatory minimums. According to Braga, however, it is crucial that these laws at least be revisited, because they “take all discretion away from the judge, so whether you’re a first time offender, a single mother, or a young man who isn’t committed to a hard core criminal lifestyle,” the judge has no sentencing flexibility. Mandatory minimum sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine also disproportionately affect African Americans, who are more likely to use crack; at the end of 2005, 44 percent of inmates doing time for drug offenses were African American.

Overflowing Prisons

As a result of these sentencing policies, a number of states are simply running out of prison cells and money. In California, arguably the state with the direst situation, the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld a lower court’s order to reduce the state’s prison population by 40,000 inmates on the grounds that prison conditions violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Beyond overcrowding, prisons are not cheap, and in tough economic times can be a strain on state budgets. According to Sen. Leno, in 2008 California spent $400 million on new prison costs simply for drug possession offenses; it costs $49,000 on average to incarcerate someone in a California state prison for a year, and that is without any of the alcohol or substance abuse treatment that Leno said 70 percent of state inmates need. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws also keep inmates in prison at older ages, and in the words of Sen. Leno, “a 60 year-old inmate costs twice as much per year as a young person.” These costs are unsustainable, and are representative of problems across the nation.


Alternatives to Incarceration

To avoid this predicament, many states are developing alternatives that focus on treatment of non-violent offenders, rather than traditional incarceration. Delaney Hall, an alternative community corrections facility for people with drug and alcohol addictions in Newark, N.J., is one such program. “The basic mission is to offer residents the kind of rehabilitative services they need to transition back into the community and not come back,” Joseph Trabucco, Director of Delaney Hall, told the HPR. Facilities like Delaney Hall work with the criminal justice system to provide services such as anger management counseling and job training skills, services that a traditional prison would not have the resources to provide.

Job training, in particular, is crucial. According to Sen. Leno, “Once someone is incarcerated, they can’t get a job. Most likely they’ll be back in state prison.” Trabucco agreed, “Generally, judges are happy to see an alternative [to incarceration in traditional prisons]. 99.9 percent of the people you lock up are going to get out at some point. How do you want that person to be acting when they’re released onto our streets?” He continued to say that facilities like Delaney Hall greatly reduce recidivism rates and cost substantially less than detaining someone in a traditional prison. Trabucco went on to explain that “no one wants to build more jails, but everybody wants to be tough on crime, [so] you have to look towards community corrections.”

While programs like Delaney Hall are not for everyone – some criminals are too dangerous for such a setting – they could serve an important function for the majority of drug offenders, Trabucco argued. However, these alternative facilities are by no means a panacea; they will have to be combined with other efforts. Sen. Leno has proposed putting in place an unelected Sentencing Commission in California that could review sentencing laws without the fear of electoral retribution, as well as reclassify some minor drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Many lawmakers are also beginning to realize that drug crimes are deeply interconnected with other domestic issues. “The best crime prevention known to mankind is a good public education,” said Sen. Leno. Yet the benefits of shifting from traditional incarceration for non-violent drug offenders to treatment-based programs like Delaney Hall are more immediately attainable. Therefore, we can expect to see many states turn to alternative incarceration as a first front in efforts to combat prison overcrowding, even as they consider the impacts of sentencing and social issues on the incarceration boom.



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