A third of U.S. states closed prisons over the past three years, while almost two-thirds enacted reforms to their criminal justice systems.
WASHINGTON — A third of U.S. states closed prisons over the past three years, while almost two-thirds enacted reforms to their criminal justice systems aimed at both reducing the number of people under incarceration and smoothening the transition for inmates back into society.
New tabulations out this week from the Sentencing Project, a watchdog group here, show that 17 states reduced their overall prison capacity by around 37,000 individuals. In 2013 alone, six states closed at least 19 correctional facilities, which the group says will save some $97 million over five years.
The figures highlight a trend that has grown over the past three years, powered both by fiscal concerns and new understandings of social impact around U.S. mass incarceration. By the end of 2012, the U.S. prison population stood at around 1.5 million people, constituting a 1.7 percent reduction from just the previous year.
“After several cycles and three years of moderate prison population decline, we’re now in a space where lawmakers are comfortable to make reforms to bring down populations,” Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project and the author of two new reports on the issue, told MintPress.
“We’re guardedly optimistic that lawmakers from both sides are comfortable using the word ‘reform’ regarding the criminal justice system. Further, many now understand that mass incarceration is bad social policy and extremely expensive, and that there are more cost-effective ways to achieve public safety and hold people accountable.”
Porter’s research points to a strengthening focus at the state level on a series of alternatives to incarceration, including rehabilitation programs, addiction-treatment efforts and a series of additional “diversion” approaches. Several states have adopted new policies to deal with the difficulty those with criminal histories often face in finding a job.
Others have made it more difficult to sentence juveniles to life without parole. Indeed, new rules should now build on a trend of significant reductions in the number of juveniles in correctional facilities. Since 2000, these levels have dropped by around 40 percent.
“The reductions in the number of youths entering the system have come about due to new understandings around the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to truancy, misbehavior that isn’t against the law,” Porter says.
“There is today new awareness that bringing at risk children into contact with the criminal justice system as a result of behavior that isn’t against the law is bad way to treat our children. Many states have addressed this head on, and there continues to be a great deal of state work being done to challenge the status quo and say this isn’t right.”
Cruel and unusual
For decades the United States has had the distinction of locking up far more people than any other country, at one point holding around a quarter of the world’s prisoners. Much of this is due to more than three decades of a harsh “tough on crime” approach adopted by lawmakers at all levels, under which both liberals and conservatives were compelled for political reasons to crack down harder and harder on public safety issues.
As stricter laws were passed, prisons kept getting built at the federal and state level, with demand even leading to what is today a thriving private incarceration sector. The federal system, for instance, grew by an astounding 800 percent since 1980, with half of that population consisting of non-violent drug offenses. By today, both the federal and many state prison systems have become dangerously – even illegally – overcrowded.
California is currently in the midst of a massive process to reduce its incarcerated population, following two Supreme Court findings that the state’s prison crowding constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.” California is now trying to find new options for housing around 10,000 inmates.
Yet in many other state correctional systems, the experience has been far smoother in recent years. North Carolina, for instance, saw the largest number of prison closures in 2013, shuttering a half-dozen juvenile and adult corrections facilities at a potential savings of $40 million.
“In fact, the bigger back story here is that we have closed 16 prisons over the past seven or eight years, with our inmate population having declined by 4,000 since the summer of 2011,” Keith Acree, a communications officer with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, told MintPress.
“In addition to an overall downturn in crime trends in the state for the past 10 years, we’ve started housing misdemeanor inmates in county rather than state prisons. We’re also treating probation violations differently, and trying to get people through drug and alcohol treatment.”
North Carolina was one of the first eight states to take part in a joint program between the Justice Department and civil society called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which since 2010 has aimed “identify and implement cost-efficient, evidence-based criminal justice reforms”.
This pool of states has since grown to 17, which the Justice Department says will save $4.6 billion by increasing the efficiency of their criminal justice systems. (A department report from July outlines the initial experiences of each of these states.)
Acree says the North Carolina legislature has made several tweaks to sentencing laws and to how the Department of Public Safety deals with its sentencing credits, to make them more equitable. He notes that the only public or political opposition to the prison closures has come from some people losing their jobs or being reassigned.
“There’s been no pushback at all on fact that the [incarcerated] population is going down or that the state is spending less money on its prison system,” he says.
While these lessons have become increasingly clear at the state level, however, the federal system – the inevitable site of more intense partisan squabbling – has struggled to keep up. But fiscal concerns at the national level have now made dealing with the U.S. over-incarceration epidemic a uniquely bipartisan goal.
U.S. ‘caste system’
For years, advocates have been pointing to evidence suggesting that harsh penal approaches were not resulting in lower crime rates. In fact, there is a rising understanding among both activists and implementers that the opposite is often the case: those who come in contact with the criminal justice system have a documented tendency towards additional run-ins with the law down the road. According to landmark research by the Pew Centre on the States, a research group, higher incarceration rates actually produce more crime by affecting families and vesting people with criminal records.
As in North Carolina, stronger focus on addiction treatment, alternatives to incarceration, programming aimed at helping inmates transition back into society are thus all receiving increasingly strong focus from law- and policymakers at the state and federal levels. Also as in North Carolina, since August a massive new effort has also been underway in the federal system to overhaul sentencing guidelines, including a push to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved landmark legislation, called the Smarter Sentencing Act, that would significantly reduce the severity of mandatory minimum sentences for drug charges, while also giving judges greater flexibility on how to sentence minor drug offenders. It would also extend a 2010 law retroactively aimed at lightening sentences for those convicted of possession of crack-cocaine.
“The Smarter Sentencing Act is the most significant piece of criminal justice reform to make it to the Senate floor in several years,” Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington Legislative Office for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a legal advocacy group, said Thursday.
“Extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing has caused our federal prison population to balloon out of control, and it’s time to change these laws that destroy lives and waste taxpayer dollars.”
Also on Thursday, Deputy Attorney General James Cole announced that the Justice Department would be significantly expanding the clemency process for drug offenders. Cole requested lawyers around the country to assist inmates currently serving time for minor drug crimes in drawing up legal requests for clemency. The move signifies a notable expansion of President Obama’s move last month to commute the terms of eight people convicted of drug offenses and given sentences considered by some to be overly harsh.
“By creating a process to consider sentence reductions for people incarcerated under inhumane and outdated sentencing laws, the administration is taking measured steps to implement smart policy that honors human dignity,” Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a national network of rights groups, said following the announcement.
“The War on Drugs has created a modern-day caste system in America where millions of people – disproportionately African Americans and Latinos – are imprisoned for an unconscionable length of time at a significant cost to the nation.”