March 13, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 31
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Melvin B. Miller
Editor & Publisher

A failed policy

More than a quarter-century after its inception, President Ronald Reagan’s “get tough on crime” policy has come back to haunt America. From 1987 to 2007, the nation’s prison population nearly tripled. As of January 2008, more than 2.3 million adults were incarcerated. Now the U.S. imprisons one in 100 adults, according to a recent report from the Pew Public Safety Performance Project.

Those who support the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” approach are satisfied with the drop in the crime rate. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the violent crime rate fell from 612.5 per 100,000 people in 1987 to 464 per 100,000 in 2007. But public officials have now become extremely concerned about the skyrocketing cost of increased incarceration.

In 1987, states spent $10.6 billion on corrections. By 2007, that cost had climbed to $44 billion, an increase of 127 percent when adjusted for inflation. In fact, state spending was actually $49 billion when funds from the federal government and bonds are added. The Pew report projects that costs will rise another $25 billion by 2011.

Fiscal constraints have forced state lawmakers to consider other forms of criminal corrections, which now account for 7 percent of state budgets. Planners have to question the effectiveness of a corrections system in which more than half of released offenders are back in prison within three years, which is the national average.

There is some concern among planners that the incarceration rate of one in 100 adults is even higher for some minorities. According to Justice Department data for 2006, one in 36 adult Latino men, one in 15 adult black men, and one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 are in jail. But the major factor motivating attention to the growth of incarceration is the rising costs.

The report does not attempt to answer the question of whether the U.S. crime rate is disproportionately high compared to other countries. Germany imprisons 93 out of every 100,000 people, compared to 750 out of every 100,000 in the U.S. Does that mean that crime is eight times more prevalent in the U.S.? Or have other countries developed more sophisticated methods for curtailing criminal activity?

General acceptance of the standards and values of a society are probably the greatest deterrent to crime. When people believe that continued acceptance of society’s values is no longer in their best interests, a major deterrent to crime is lost. Some sociologists might call such an occurrence a failure of the social contract.

Some approaches to reducing incarceration attempt to repair the social contract, such as viewing persons addicted to drugs less as felons than people with a medical problem. Planners understand that the opportunity for early education and quality secondary education will better prepare Americans for a respected place in society.

Most prison systems call themselves correction departments, but little correction occurs there; if it did, there would not be such a high rate of recidivism. Despite the cost, states should provide massive education and counseling programs for prisoners so that they are better equipped to function productively in the world upon their release.

“Get tough on crime” has been tried, and it does not work. It is time to consider another approach.

Editor’s note: One in 15 black men aged 18 or older is incarcerated.


“I guess we’re just going through one of those rites of passage.”

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