Sue Urahn on Public Safety (Fall 2007 Trust Magazine briefing)

Source Organization: Pew Public Safety Performance Project

Author: Maclean's

12/03/2007 - What factors are driving the growth of prisons in this country, and what options for reform are possible to increase public safety, manage corrections spending and hold offenders accountable?

The Public Safety Performance Project seeks answers to those questions, with the aim of helping states advance fiscally sound, data-driven corrections policies and practices. The initiative is supported by the Council of State Governments, the Vera Institute of Justice and Pew, which also administers it.

In February, the project issued Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2007-2011, the first known attempt to determine the future growth of the nation’s state and federal prison systems as a whole.  

Shortly afterward, Maclean’s magazine caught up with Sue Urahn, managing director of Pew’s Center on the States, where the project is based; the following is an excerpt of an interview in Maclean’s (figures updated since its March 19, 2007 publication), reprinted with permission.

Maclean’s: Since 1970, there’s been a 700 percent increase in the prison population in the U.S. Your report explains that if current trends continue, within five years one in every 178 U.S. residents will live in prison. And that number doesn’t even include people in local jails.

How much is it going to cost to have that many people behind bars?

Urahn: We’re currently spending about $61 billion a year on incarceration, and to accommodate the additional 192,000 prisoners we’re projecting by 2011, we’re estimating it will cost another $27.5 billion because new prisons will need to be constructed.

Maclean’s: Aside from the crime rate, what’s driving the incarceration rate?

Urahn: Sentencing policies have a significant impact. Truth in sentencing, for instance, which means that when a person is convicted of a particular type of crime and is sentenced to a term of X length, he will in fact serve some guaranteed percentage of that time.

Previously, sentences were plea-bargained or otherwise reduced, so there was not much connection between what the sentence was and the time actually served.

Maclean’s: But if these are dangerous people, they should be locked up, right?

Urahn: If you look at crime from a national perspective, about half of the crimes that are committed are violent, and the other half tend to be drug- and property-related.

The explosion in incarceration is not necessarily one that can be tacked directly to an explosion in violent crime. Today, a lot of prison admissions are people who are having their parole or probation revoked, in many cases because of technical violations, like not turning up for an appointment with a parole officer.

In some states, though, graduated sanctions are being put in place, so a technical violation doesn’t automatically result in being sent back to prison, but some kind of consequence occurs and further violations result in harsher sanctions, culminating in a return to prison.

This is a more nuanced approach to criminal justice, identifying which people on parole and probation really do need intensive monitoring and supervision, which people are higher risk to re-offend.

Maclean’s: But doesn’t incarceration at least have some impact on the crime rate, because you’re getting violent criminals off the street?

Urahn: Most of the research shows that incarceration tends to account for about 25 percent of the drop in crime rates [that occurred in the 1990s], so it certainly has an effect. But what we are looking at now is the law of diminishing returns. The more people you put in prison, you get gradually less and less impact on the crime rate.

What states need to do is figure out who needs to be in prison to protect public safety—which is job one—how to hold offenders accountable and how to pay attention to the fiscal bottom line and to be responsible stewards of taxpayers’ funds.

States are finding that there are ways to handle non-violent and lowrisk offenders that don’t involve incarceration. For example, communitybased punishments such as day reporting, electronic monitoring, work release, having people work to pay fines and restitution—or in the case of drug offences, treatment. All these alternatives hold people accountable, protect public safety and also cost much less than incarceration.

Maclean’s: Judging by network television, Americans are obsessed with crime and the criminal justice system. Do you think TV is glamorizing crime and thereby encouraging it?

Urahn: I have no idea. But if you look at the polling data, 10 years ago, 36 percent of Americans said that crime was one of the top two issues the government needed to address. And in 2003, the number of people who felt that way was less than onehalf of one percent. So I think there’s been a real shift in public perception about crime as a really serious issue.

We did a poll in 2003 that showed 72 percent of Americans think the criminal justice system should rehabilitate criminals, not just punish them. It may just be because so many people’s lives are now touched by the system. So television aside, there’s been a really fundamental shift in public opinion about the need for incarceration. That same poll showed that 75 percent supported reducing spending on prisons and allocating those funds to public schools and community-development programs.

What we see overall is that Americans want really serious criminals sent to prison, but they are very supportive of options, and rehabilitation efforts, for low-level offenders. It is a case where the public is ahead of the policy makers.

On average, corrections spending is the fourth-largest item states are struggling with, so it does mean that the more they spend on incarceration, the less they have to spend on education and health care. It’s also one of the things that states have pretty much complete control over in their budgets.

Maclean’s: But isn’t there a significant political danger of being perceived as soft on crime?

Urahn: Traditionally there’s been a fear, but you can come at these problems from a very data-driven and sensible perspective, and we are seeing that more and more. Both conservatives and liberals are now talking about being smart on crime, not tough or soft on crime. Maybe the only nice thing about our projections is that they could well be wrong.

Maclean’s: But you didn’t pull these numbers out of a hat. Your study is based on statistics provided by the states and the federal government.

Urahn: Yes. But our projections are a combination of the external factors— demographics, socio-economic and crime trends, things we don’t have a lot of control over—and the internal decisions the states themselves make on sentencing, on which offences are criminalized to which degree, how they use probation and parole, whether they have effective community-based punishment systems. So the states have a lot of control over whether these projections become reality.

But if nothing changes, then absolutely, these numbers are very realistic. It’s like the ghost of Christmas Future in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—this is what you’re looking at, but does it have to be that way? Not necessarily.

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