U.S. jails, prisons overflowing
Article Published: Tuesday, May 03, 2005
The figure is nothing short of staggering: 2.1 million U.S. residents -
one in every 138 - locked up as of mid-2004. That's nearly as many
people as live in the entire Denver metro area.
The tally is 700,000 more than in 1990, and, according to the U.S.
Bureau of Justice Statistics, 900 more prisoners are added weekly, even
as crime rates fall. The U.S. incarceration rate of 726 per 100,000
population is in a different league than most other nations. Only
Russia, with 606 per 100,000, for a total of 865,000 prisoners, is
close to the U.S. among major industrial nations. In Britain, it's 142
per 100,000, China 118, France 91 and Japan 58.
It isn't cheap, either. Prisons cost U.S. taxpayers about $49 billion a
year. Get-tough policies from the 1980s and early 1990s, such as
mandatory drug sentences and "three-strikes" life terms, have filled
U.S. prisons and jails. Denverites vote today on a $378 million jail
and court complex.
Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told The
Associated Press he favors alternative programs, such as drug treatment
and help for the mentally ill, to reduce the numbers of offenders
incarcerated for non-violent crimes and low-level drug offenses.
Local political leaders are grappling with alternatives to jail
crowding. Denver already spends about $14.6 million a year on
sentencing alternatives and diversion programs and still needs more
Denver pays about $52.75 a day, or $19,334 a year, to confine one
person. Electronic monitoring, including a set-up cost of $75, costs
only $18 a day, or $6,645 yearly. The Colorado Department of
Corrections pays $70 a day, or $25,550 a year, for each inmate in a
state prison and $49 a day, or $17,885 a year, for those in contract
"The conventional wisdom seems to be to put the money in at the front
end," said Joe Sandoval, professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan
State College. "Give folks an opportunity to earn a living honestly and
to become educated and to have a stake in American society. You have to
(do that) at an early age, and that way the chances of aberrant
behavior later on will decrease."
That's "extremely difficult" to do, Sandoval said, and so is getting
adequate funding for such programs.
In Colorado, only one in four drug offenders is sentenced to prison,
said DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan. "By the time they hit the
Department of Corrections, those individuals have earned their way
there." It's also a mistake to assume all drug offenders are
non-violent, she said.
Educational, vocational, drug, alcohol, anger management and mental
health programs are "only part of the answer," Morgan said. "Early
intervention ... would be critical."
The first priority, according to Morgan, is public safety. We agree.
But legislators should revisit sentencing and drug laws. Should some
aspects of drug use be approached as health problems rather than
crimes? Is it wise to spend $1.25 million to keep a 25-year-old stickup
artist locked up until he turns 75? Changing antisocial behavior is a
worthier, albeit more difficult, goal.