04/30/2008 - For the first time in history, more than one in every 100 adults in America are in jail or prison—a fact that significantly impacts state budgets without delivering a clear return on public safety.
According to a report released in February by the Pew Center on the States’ Public Safety Performance Project, 2,319,258 adults were held in American prisons or jails, or one in every 99.1 men and women, at the start of 2008. During 2007, the prison population rose by more than 25,000 inmates. Thirty-six states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons saw their prison populations increase in 2007. Ten states experienced inmate population growth of 5 percent or larger; Kentucky had the largest, with 12 percent.
A close examination of the most recent U.S. Department of Justice data (2006) found that while one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, the figure is one in nine for black males in that age group. Men are still roughly 13 times more likely than women to be incarcerated, but the female population is expanding at a far brisker pace. For black women in their middle to late 30s, the incarceration rate also has hit the one-in-100 mark. In addition, one in every 53 adults in their 20s is behind bars; the rate for those over 55 is one in 837.
In addition to detailing state and regional prison growth rates, Pew’s report, One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, identifies how corrections spending compares to other state investments, why it has increased, and what some states are doing to limit growth in both prison populations and costs while maintaining public safety.
As prison populations expand, costs to states are rising. Last year alone, states spent more than $49 billion on corrections, up from $11 billion 20 years before. Yet the national recidivism rate remains virtually unchanged, with about half of released inmates returning to jail or prison within three years. And while violent criminals and other serious offenders account for some of the growth, many inmates are low-level offenders or people who have violated the terms of their probation or parole.
“For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn’t been a clear and convincing return for public safety,” says Adam Gelb, the project’s director. “More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers.”
The report points out the necessity of locking up violent and repeat offenders, but notes that prison growth and higher incarceration rates do not reflect either a parallel increase in crime or a corresponding surge in the nation’s population at large. Instead, more people are behind bars principally because of a wave of policy choices that are sending more lawbreakers to prison and, through “three-strikes” measures and other sentencing laws, imposing longer prison stays on inmates.
As a result, states’ corrections costs have risen substantially. Twenty years ago, the states collectively spent $10.6 billion of their general funds—their primary source of discretionary dollars— on corrections. Last year, they spent more than $44 billion in general funds, a 315 percent jump, plus some $5 billion more from other sources. Coupled with tightening state budgets, the greater prison expenditures may force states to make tough choices about where to spend their money. For example, Pew found that over the same 20-year period, inflationadjusted general-fund spending on corrections rose 127 percent while higher education expenditures rose just 21 percent.
“States are paying a high cost for corrections—one that may not be buying them as much in public safety as it should. And spending on prisons may be crowding out investments in other valuable programs that could enhance a state’s economic competitiveness,” says Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States. “There are other choices. Some state policy makers are experimenting with a range of community punishments that are as effective as incarceration in protecting public safety and allow states to put the brakes on prison growth.”
According to the report, some states are holding lower-risk offenders accountable in less-costly settings and using intermediate sanctions for parolees and probationers who violate conditions of their release. These include a mix of community-based programs such as day reporting centers, treatment facilities, electronic monitoring systems and community service—tactics recently adopted in Kansas and Texas. Another common intervention, used in Kansas and Nevada, involves making small reductions in prison terms for inmates who complete substance-abuse treatment and other programs designed to cut their risk of recidivism.
The Pew center was assisted in collecting state prison counts by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the JFA Institute. The report also relies on data published by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Association of State Budget Officers and the U.S. Census Bureau.
To view the entire report, including state-by-state data and methodology, visit the Pew Center on the States' Web site.