Doing time in the South
The United States incarcerates one out of every 100 adults. Combine this with the number of people under probation or parole, and the statistic is even starker: One in 31 adults (7.3 million people) is under some form of correctional supervision. It's a historic high.
The United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. Even though the United States represents only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of the world's prison inmates.
When it came to locking people up, Louisiana leads the South, and the South leads the nation. Simply put: the South has more of its population in prisons or jails than any other part of the country.
The South on Lockdown
Since 1980, the country's prison population has quadrupled to more than two million, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase. The prison population increase can be attributed largely to "tough-on-crime" criminal justice policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them are mandatory drug sentences, "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws for repeat offenders, and "truth-in-sentencing" laws that restrict early releases. These draconian policies uniquely hurt the South, especially where enacted with key backing from "get-tough-on-crime" lawmakers (resulting in, among other things, the disenfranchisement of millions of potential Democratic voters).
The effects of the Drug War and its resulting surge in incarceration were also especially hard-felt in the South. By 2000, nine of the 20 states with the highest incarceration rates were in the South. And by 2008, 10 of the 20 states with the highest rates were in the South. Prevention, treatment and re-entry programs have been slashed while prison budgets continue to rise.
The racial disparity of these policies has been tremendous: Nationally, black adults are four times as likely as whites to be under correctional control. One in 11 black adults -- 9.2 percent -- was under correctional supervision by 2008. And because the majority of African Americans live in the Deep South (the highest populations are in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia respectively), the racial disparities of "get-tough" policies have been disproportionately felt there.
It seems that crime and punishment is now a dominant industry in the Deep South. By 2008, the top five states with the highest adult incarceration rates were in the South: Louisiana leads the way, with one out of every 55 residents behind bars. Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama finish off the top five.
The rates of increase have been record-breaking. Louisiana's incarceration rate spiked by 272 percent since 1982. Mississippi saw a 256 percent increase. Texas and Arkansas have also seen increases of around 200 percent. And in terms of the total amount of people under correctional control, Georgia leads the nation: A whopping 1 in 13 adults is under its correctional system's authority.
State Budget Crises: An Opportunity for Change?
Since 2000, many states have edged away from the mass lock-up approach, mostly to save money. Yet into the new century the South continued to lead in U.S. prison population growth, and the rising costs of incarceration are taking a significant toll on already-cash strapped Southern state budgets. A Pew Center on the States report released this week points out the high cost of current sentencing and corrections policies: States spent a record $68 billion on corrections in 2008.
More and more money is being sent on what many advocates are calling a failed, bloated and ineffective system. Moreover, despite the "tough-on-crime" legislation of the past three decades, high incarceration rates have not led to a decrease in crime or recidivism.
As the Progressive States Network pointed out:
...like health care, our current system is not only unsustainable, it is already breaking under its own weight. State corrections spending increased 10% in 2006 and almost 6% in 2007. Correction spending in the states now tops $50 billion a year and accounts for 1 of 15 discretionary dollars spent by the states. In 2007 it was the fastest growing major component of state budgets. The impact of these cost increases was made evident in California recently when the state was ordered by a panel of federal judges to release tens of thousands of prisoners because of severe overcrowding.
With states in desperate need of solutions to budget shortfalls, redirecting criminal justice resources to programs that reduce long-term costs is a huge untapped well of savings...smart-on-crime practices not only reduce criminal justice costs, they reduce crime itself, as well as the collateral costs of over-incarceration.
The United States spends billions to house and monitor offenders as they go in and out of jails and prisons every year. But with states facing huge fiscal crises this year, lawmakers and prison officials have begun reevaluating their state's hard-line sentencing policies and looking at ways to help released inmates avoid returning to prison. And slowly but surely, some Southern states are even beginning to make a shift in policy toward alternatives to mass incarceration.
There's seems no better time than now for reform. Prison reform advocates point out that the budget crisis gives leaders on both sides the cover of fiscal responsibility to implement programs and policies that will not only save money but also improve a failing corrections system. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that "collectively, the pending and proposed initiatives could add up to one of biggest shifts ever in corrections policy, putting into place cost-saving reforms that have struggled to win political support in the tough-on-crime climate of recent decades."
The Way Forward
Advocates point out that one necessary corrections reform is simply to stop sending so many nonviolent offenders to prison. Nearly 90 percent of corrections money is spent on prisons, according to the Pew Center.
With all that money going to incarcerating people, community corrections has been significantly underfunded. According to the recent Pew report, 34 states for which data are available spent as much as 22 times more per day to manage prison inmates than to supervise offenders in the community. The reported average inmate cost was $79 per day, or nearly $29,000 per year. The average cost of managing an offender in the community ranged from $3.42 per day for probationers to $7.47 per day for parolees, or about $1,250 to $2,750 a year. Those 34 states collectively poured $18.65 billion into prisons in 2008, while spending just $2.53 billion on probation and parole programs -- a ratio of more than seven to one, the report found.
This means prisons are driving the corrections spending increases and bloating state budgets. As the report found, prisons now cost the country about $47 billion a year, a 303 percent increase over 20 years. Prison spending has outpaced other essential government services from education to transportation and public assistance. Yet despite this increased spending, recidivism rates have remained largely unchanged.
There has always been a wide geographic variance in how states respond to crime. Southern states tend to have more of a "lock-'em-up" approach with more dollars going toward this. As a result, the South spends less on the kinds of social programs that tend to keep people out of prison and less on community-based alternatives to prisons once people offend. But these sorts of state policies have to change, advocates argue.
"State policy choices are responsible for creating this mess and state policy choices can get us out," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States.
Dealing out longer sentences and putting more people behind bars have been the hallmarks of Southern states, Gelb told CNN. "The huge differences between states are mostly due not to crime trends, or social and economic forces," he said. "The rates are different mostly because of choices that the states have made about how they respond to crime."
The Pew study found that particularly during a recession, rising costs of incarceration should push states to reduce prison spending by moving more nonviolent inmates out of prisons and into community-based parole and probation systems. Gelb pointed to Texas as an example of where this is making a difference: The state saved $500 million by expanding parole and probation while stopping the construction of new prisons.
Community corrections is the cheaper and more effective solution, advocates argue. Strong community supervision programs for lower-risk, nonviolent offenders not only cost significantly less than incarceration but when appropriately resourced and managed can cut recidivism by as much as 30 percent, according to the Pew report.
It appears that some states are taking note of these statistics and making change. As Stateline.org reports:
The Democratic governors of at least four states -- Kentucky, New York, Virginia, Wisconsin -- recently have sought to save tens of millions of dollars by reducing the amount of time some prisoners spend behind bars
Other states have negotiated bipartisan agreements focused on preventing recidivism, a major cause of crowded prisons and rising costs.
Kentucky is an example of shifting policy in the South. The state, which has experienced the nation's largest prison population increase in recent years, has been suffering major state budget woes hampered by the amount of money the state spends on prisons. Faced with a surging prison population and a huge budget deficit, Kentucky began granting early release to inmates in 2008. The state also began amending parole release policies and expanding home incarceration for persons convicted of certain offenses.
Several other states are beginning to take up lower-cost alternatives to prison by turning to community-based corrections. States have begun to use electronic monitoring systems -- ankle bracelets and Global Positioning Systems -- to track those on probation. States are also looking to improve their treatment facilities and community service programs.
What about Louisiana, the nation's leading jailer? In 2008, Louisiana spent $625 million on corrections, 6.4 percent of the state budget, Pew reports. Louisiana, a state still struggling to recover from massive infrastructure damage from the 2005 and 2008 hurricane seasons, faces a $2 billion budget deficit this year. Advocates are hoping that the under the current fiscal crisis, Louisiana will begin to look for alternatives to incarceration.
That first step may be soon: This week the Times-Picayune reported that Jimmy LeBlanc, Louisiana corrections secretary, is planning to convene a new committee within the next few weeks to consider how Louisiana could improve the way it handles criminals.
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