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America Behind Bars: Why Attempts at Prison Reform Keep Failing

A bloated prison system is against the country's best interests. Yet "tough on crime" rhetoric has gotten in the way of reform.
 
 
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When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared plans in January 2005 to reform California's prisons, starting with a rebranding campaign (it's the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation now), his announcement signaled much-needed relief for California taxpayers, whose overstretched, scandal-prone prison system was screaming for an overhaul.

But three years later, California maintains the second-highest prison population in the country (171,444 in January 2008) and the highest recidivism rate (a staggering 70 percent).

From the start, people familiar with the embattled prison system were skeptical. "Everybody's going to get new business cards and letterheads," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Association, "but we haven't changed with respect to providing inmates anything different."

Gov. Schwarzenegger's largely failed attempts at prison reform -- e.g. reducing the overall prison population and releasing low-risk, nonviolent offenders early -- is a reflection of a larger economic and political dynamic playing out across the country. On one hand, people are starting to realize that bloated prison systems are a resource suck on an already troubled economy. On the other hand, many people -- even in that liberal bastion, California -- cling to the misguided idea that locking up large numbers of lawbreakers will keep the public safer. That leaves politicians like Schwarzenegger trying to straddle a line between appearing "tough on crime" and pushing for meaningful reform. So far, the former has won out. In many ways, California is a microcosm of the American prison crisis -- one that has reached alarming proportions.

The most recent proof is summarized in the title of a report released last week by the Pew Center on the States: "One in 100: Americans Behind Bars 2008." The study examines the state of adult America (no juveniles were included) to deliver a sobering new measure of our incarceration nation. The title statistic alone is jaw-dropping, representing a historic high (or new low, depending on how you look at it) when it comes to American justice. With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in its prison population, well ahead of China (1.5 million) and leaving Russia in the dust (890,000). "Beyond the sheer number of inmates, America is also the global leader in the rate at which it incarcerates its citizenry," the study reports, "outpacing nations like South Africa and Iran."

As always, it turns out the "citizenry" disproportionately consists of black men over 18 (one in 15 are imprisoned) -- and particularly those between the age of 20 and 34 (1 in 9). Recidivism rates are also sky-high. According to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than a third of the people admitted to prison in 2005 were arrested on parole violations. "Nationally, more than half of released offenders are back in prison within three years," the Pew study reports, "either for a new crime or for violating the terms of their release." In 1998, thanks in large part to the War on Drugs, the number of nonviolent prisoners hit 1 million -- and has risen since then. The number of women prisoners is also rising, and black women are a microcosm of the national prison epidemic: One in 100 black women in their mid- to late 30s is behind bars.

It's a clarion call for reform, no doubt, but beyond its record-breaking numbers, the Pew study breaks no news -- at least not in the larger scheme of the American criminal justice system. It's a crisis decades in the making, and a 50-state Pew analysis released at the same time last year provided similarly startling projections of where our prisons and jails are headed, to far less fanfare. But one in 100 is a stark figure (and, in fact, the exact number is worse: 1 in 99.1). Thus, both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran stories -- with the Post holding an online Q&A with one of the study's authors the day after it was released. The report even nudged its way into the presidential race: Hillary Clinton issued a press release on her campaign website that day bemoaning the "heartbreaking statistic" and invoking the need for "a president who will be tough on crime, but smart about it too." (As a senator representing a state whose rural regions are littered with the architecture of a prison explosion fanned during her husband's administration, it's an important statement -- if only a statement).

While public shock and dismay over the criminal justice system is a good thing, policy reform usually only comes once those in power recognize public support for measures otherwise considered too politically risky. (Iraq war notwithstanding.) Indeed, a significant part of the Pew study (which was written mainly with politicians in mind) is devoted to showing that policy makers are starting to come around on the prison issue, increasingly talking about being "smart" rather than "tough" on crime. The hope is that others will take their lead. "There's a shift away from the mindset of lock them up and throw away the key," one Ohio Republican legislator is quoted as saying. Alternatives include investing in drug treatment for prisoners -- as well as "drug courts" -- relaxing stringent parole rules and curbing mandatory minimums.

Ironically (if necessarily) the states that appear to be paving the way on prison reform are the ones who lock up the most people. Take Texas: Between 1985 and 2005, its prison population rose by 300 percent, a growth rate even the state's death row machinery couldn't offset. Now, with an estimated prison population of 171,790, according to the Pew study, the Lone Star State is forging "a new path," with a bipartisan decision last year to authorize a "virtual makeover" of the prison system. The overhaul will include more drug treatment for prisoners and "broad changes in parole practices" aimed to curb recidivism rates. If all goes according to plan, the state may be able to shelve emergency blueprints for three new prisons. "It's always been safer politically to build the next prison, rather than stop and see whether that's really the smartest thing to do," the Houston-based chair of the Texas senate's criminal justice committee said. "But we're at the point where I don't think we can afford to do that anymore."

Financially, this is certainly true. Politically, Texas lawmakers will likely face serious challenges when it comes to implementing these reforms. In California, months after tacking the word "rehabilitation" to its Department of Corrections, an organization called Crime Victims United of California created TV ads accusing the governor of abandoning crime victims and endangering Californians by easing up the punishments for people on parole. In concert with the CCPOA, the effort successfully derailed one of the central components of Schwarzenegger's plan. Rather than receive drug counseling or anything comparable, parole violators would be shuttled back to prison.

The move was a big step backward. "Eliminating alternative sanctions as an option for parole violators will undoubtedly drive up the inmate population and exacerbate overcrowding in the California prison system, already jam-packed to nearly twice its design capacity," reported the Los Angeles Times in April 2005. "Experts say such conditions -- with inmates stacked in triple-decker bunks and wedged into gyms, hallways and other spaces not intended as housing -- are a recipe for riots."

In fairness, regardless of what happens in Texas, it's hard to begrudge honest-sounding and measured rhetoric about an issue that historically has attracted so much belligerent posturing. But at the same time, for those who have watched the American criminal justice system consume not just state budgets but whole city blocks, it's also somewhat infuriating. Warehousing massive populations of men and women is, on its face, bad public policy. For politicians to be just waking up to this maddening reality seems dubious. What's more, the dollars and sense tone so many strike when espousing the benefits of prison reform leaves out a major factor -- a veritable elephant in the room when it comes to the prison boom: the powerful incentives that continue to keep the prison population high. From construction to prison security to healthcare, prisons are an industry -- and a highly lucrative one at that. "Profits oil the machinery, keep it humming and speed its growth," wrote criminal justice expert Judith Greene in an essay recently published in Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration (New Press). With states spending $44 billion in tax dollars on corrections, prisons are an enormous cash cow for private companies.

In its 2005 annual report, the Corrections Corporation of America laid out what's at stake for a prison industry facing reform:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities ... The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws.

... Legislation has been proposed in numerous jurisdictions that could lower minimum sentences for some nonviolent crimes and make more inmates eligible for early release ... Also, sentencing alternatives under consideration could put some offenders on probation with electronic monitors who would otherwise be incarcerated. Similarly, reductions in crime rates could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences requiring incarceration at correctional facilities.

The reforms described by the rather alarmed-sounding CCA mirror those that Pew and other advocates herald as a way to curb the growing prison crisis -- and it appears that lawmakers are finally willing to hear them. "What we're seeing is state leaders around the country starting to call time out," said Pew researcher Susan K. Urahn during the Post's online chat. "We are seeing activity in several states where legislators from both parties are saying, 'We aren't getting our money's worth out of prisons.'" So, for example, "for the same amount of money, you could keep one inmate behind bars for an additional year, or you could provide treatment and intensive supervision for several others -- and cut the recidivism rate considerably." But who will provide treatment -- and how about those electric monitors? Like prison construction itself, prison "reform" will largely amount to trading in one set of services for another.

Reform as it stands mostly means managing a massive pre-existing population that is already mired in the prison-to-parole-to-prison pipeline. With the numbers so high, any small adjustments in the system will yield results. In Texas' case, "even a small tweak -- such as the 5 percent increase in grants by the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole between 2006 and 2007 -- can have an appreciable thinning affect on the prison population." It is too soon to tell how effective such reforms will be in the long term.

Going beyond managing the prison population from state to state to effectively reduce it nationwide will take much more than implementing piecemeal alternatives. The fact that we're no longer seeing an all-out race to the bottom in prison expansion is a good thing, but deeper change will require dismantling the pervasive attachment to conventional wisdom that, despite being erroneous and counterproductive, is still used to justify the record-breaking rise in the American prison population. "One out of every 100 adults is behind bars because one out of every 100 adults has committed a serious criminal offense," a Utah-based law professor and former federal judge told the New York Times last week, directly contradicting the conclusions of the Pew study, which focused much attention on the pitfalls of locking up nonviolent and drug offenders.

Others continue to defend the sweeping policies that got us here in the first place. "The fact that we have a large prison population by itself is not a central problem because it has contributed to the extraordinary increase in public safety we have had in this country," conservative sociologist James Q. Wilson told the Washington Post . Hardly unbiased criticism, given that Wilson was one of the intellectual engines behind the "broken windows" theory that helped get us into this mess. (And tell that to black or Latino families who experience the criminal justice system's harshest excesses -- from children growing up without their parents to parents paying crippling phone fees to reach their children. Or tell that to now-elderly prisoners living out their final days behind bars, whose threat to society is negligible and whose failing health makes them highly vulnerable -- and hugely expensive to care for.)

Besides, connecting the prison boom to an increase in public safety is a classic canard. Studies by organizations such as the Vera Institute of Justice have found only a small correlation between prisons and reduced crime. As Urahn puts it, "incarceration is not the dominant force in crime control that many people assume ... despite having quadrupled the prison population over the past 25 years, we have not quadrupled public safety."

What has soared is the cost for taxpayers -- $50 billion per year at the state level and an additional $5 billion at the federal level, according to the Pew study. Perhaps more than even the stunning one in 100 figure, these are the numbers that should shake people awake. But regardless of all proof to the contrary, many Americans remain attached to the idea that prisons keep them safe. "We are jammed up in this situation right now because we have fallen in love with one of the most undocumented beliefs," California Sen. Don Perata said in 2007. "That somehow you get safer if you put more people in jail."