Problems felons encounter when they get out of prison (and that often cause them to return) are the same ones that got them incarcerated: lack of safe housing, drug addiction and food insecurity. Address those, Kerman said, before incarceration.
USA TODAY Opinion
On its face, news that the incarceration rate in the U.S. decreased by 10 percent over a decade is most welcome, and experts deem it a significant development.
They also warn to look deeper into the issue before jumping for joy.
Reports released Thursday by the Department of Justice reveal that not only did the rate of inmates in federal and state prisons and local jails drop at a double-figure pace from 2007-2017, but the imprisonment rate in relation to the U.S. population fell to its lowest since 1997. That figure sank to 440 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2017.
After decades of rising incarceration rates that followed the “get tough on crime’’ mandate of the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, the statistical reversal is a step in the right direction. To what extent is a matter of some debate among close observers.
“It’s a decline in the use of incarceration as punishment, but whether that’s a decline in total punishment is not at all clear,’’ said Daniel Mears, professor of criminology at Florida State University. “I’d like to see whether there is a corresponding decline in probation or electronic monitoring, things like that.’’
There’s little argument crime is down nationally. The FBI’s Uniform Crime Report indicates that over that same 10-year stretch, 2007-2017, violent crime fell by more than 10 percent, so it’s reasonable to expect fewer offenders would be locked up.
Policy changes regarding sentencing, especially in cases of low-level drug crimes, also likely played a role in the reduced number of people behind bars.
But Mears pointed out there are other factors at play as well, such as prison overcrowding and understaffing in several states, which may have prompted judges and prosecutors to seek alternative forms of punishment. He also noted the U.S. total of 1.5 million inmates is very large for a country with a population of 327 million.
“We built prisons at a massive scale in the ’80s, ’90s, right to the 2000s,’’ Mears said. “It was politically very hard to pull back from that, and states are just now starting to really grapple with the aftermath.’’
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in five jails were operating at or above 100% of their rated capacity midway through 2017, and 81% of jail beds were occupied that year. However, that number is down from 95% in 2005.
That’s a positive sign for those who advocate for more efficient ways of dealing with law-breakers.
“Incarceration does little to affect crime,’’ said Thomas Baker, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “It’s also more expensive than more effective alternatives. So any time we see a reduction in the use of an ineffective, expensive policy, it has to be considered a big deal.’’
So was the decline of 31% in the number of sentenced black adults who were imprisoned from 2007 to 2017, the largest of any racial group, and it included a dip of 4% in the last year of the report.
The proportion of black male inmates in relation to their general population was still nearly six times higher than white males – the rate was 2-to-1 among females – but the unbalance has narrowed.
“This likely reflects more equitable sentencing practices and policies that had previously disproportionately affected black adults,’’ Baker said. “Although unjust practices and policies remain, more equitable practices have likely resulted in an overall drop in incarceration for black adults.’’
The report also indicated the percentage of incarcerated non-citizens (7.6%) is nearly equal to their percentage of the U.S. population (7%, based on the Census Bureau), which appears to contradict President Donald Trump’s frequent claim that immigrants bring in high levels of crime.
“The supreme irony is that immigration has the potential to lower crime rates in America,’’ Mears said, noting that research has shown first-generation immigrants average less crime than those born in the U.S.
Regardless of race or citizenship status, inmates who get released will need supervision and skills to help them transition back into the mainstream. That’s a topic of concern for Franklin Wilson, associate professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at Indiana State University.
Wilson said case loads for parole officers have grown as funding has failed to keep pace with the release of prisoners, and the diminished attention could lead to increased recidivism.
“In the last 10 years you have seen unprecedented attention given to criminal justice reform, and deservingly so,’’ Wilson said. “The key issue here is not so much the decrease in prison populations but whether or not state legislatures are going to provide the funding and services needed to help with each individual’s reentry into society.
“This sort of support must be in place to help ensure that those being released are successful and do not end up going back to prison.’’
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