Drug War Prison Stats

By John "Birdman" Bryant

 

Corrections System Continues to Bloat With 458,000 Drug War Prisoners: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Justice Policy Institute Crunch the Numbers in Separate Reports http://www.drcnet.org/wol/147.html#risingnumbers

The number of people under some form of correctional supervision -- jail, prison, probation, or parole -- has reached a record 6.3 million, the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) announced in its semiannual report on corrections. That report, as well as a treasure trove of related statistics is available online at <http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/correct.htm>.

According to the BJS numbers, the number of people on probation or parole has reached a record high of 4.5 million. Twenty-four percent of the probationers were under criminal justice system supervision for drug offenses. The number of prisoners stood at 1.86 million in June 1999, the last month for which statistics were available, but is thought to have passed 2 million last February.

For Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of the Sentencing Project, an independent criminal justice policy analysis group, the numbers show that little has changed.

"Once again we see a new record being set; it's been the same way each year for the last 25 years," Mauer told DRCNet.

Mauer also pointed out that parole and probation departments, less glamorous components of the criminal justice juggernaut than funding new policemen on the streets or building imposing new prisons, are being stretched to the limit.

"One concern," said Mauer, "is that about 2/3 of these people are on probation or parole, and what's happened with the enormous increase in imprisonment is that we've diverted resources away from probation and parole departments to prison cells."

"It's very difficult for probation and parole departments to do the job they're supposed to do," he continued, "and it becomes a vicious cycle. If they don't have the resources to do the job correctly, judges and communities will lose confidence in them, violations could then increase or judges may not use probation or parole if they don't believe the system can provide the right level of supervision or service."

BJS statistician Allen J, Beck told the Washington Post, meanwhile, that the likelihood of drug offenders being sentenced to prison had begun to decrease over the past decade, but the increased number of drug arrests meant that growth in the prison population continued to increase, although at a lower rate.

According to BJS, between 1990 and midyear 1999, the incarcerated population grew an average 5.8% annually. The rate of growth in state prison populations declined during the 12-month period ending June 30, 1999 to 3.1%. The number of federal prisoners, however, rose by 9.9% (up 10,614 prisoners, the largest 12-month gain ever reported).

As Mauer observed, "Absolute numbers are still going up, although one would have thought that with crime rates declining for seven straight years, we would have seen a reduction."

"Instead," said Mauer, "The numbers remain relatively steady. This is driven by drug policy, mandatory minimums, and the significant expansion of policing."

"Anytime you add more law enforcement officers, it is likely to lead to more arrests. The question," said Mauer, "is how can we use law enforcement in more of a problem-solving manner instead of just arresting more and more people."

Days after BJS released its latest numbers, the Justice Policy Institute released its own study, "Poor Prescription: The Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States. That study is available online at <http://www.cjcj.org/drug/>.

Based on data from the National Corrections Reporting System, as well as BJS numbers and statistics from the California Department of Corrections, the JPI study asked and answered the following questions, among others:

Q: What proportion of prisoners are drug offenders and how much does it cost?

A: Drug offenders make up 23.7% of the prison population, and the cost of holding them behind bars will be over $9 billion this year.

Q: How have comparative rates of incarceration for prisoners versus non-violent and violent offenders changed over time?

A: From 1980 to 1997, the number of all offenders rose 82%, non- violent offenders rose 207%, and the number of imprisoned drug offenders increased an astounding 1040%, or nearly eleven times.

Q: How do rates for blacks and whites compare?

A: Blacks were incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate 14 times higher than that of whites. While the rate of white drug offenders sent to prison doubled from 1986 to 1996, the rate for black offenders quintupled. Even in states that registered an overall decrease in drug incarceration rates, the rates for blacks increased.

The JPI report is sure to fuel electoral and legislative efforts in several states to reform sentencing structures. A California initiative seeks to divert drug offenders from prison into treatment, while in New York, the state's head judge has ordered a statewide drug court diversion program. In Michigan, the governor and state legislature recently modified the state's draconian mandatory life without parole drug law provisions. A recent Field poll reports that the California treatment-not- prison initiative is gaining 64% voter approval.

And now comes word from Capitol Hill that Rep. John Conyers (D- MI), Dean of the Congressional Black Caucus, is preparing an omnibus bill to respond to the drug war's follies on a comprehensive basis. That bill will, according to a July 27th press release, address mandatory minimum sentencing reform, treatment as an alternative to prison, and means to facilitate the reentry of former drug war prisoners into society.

Observers close to Conyers say the bill will be introduced this fall.

In this session, Conyers has offered successful amendments to bills in the Judiciary Committee that would establish federal drug courts for the first time and create a Congressional finding that mandatory minimums discriminate against African Americans.

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