27 July 2004
More Americans are now serving prison sentences or are on probation or parole than ever before in the country's history, in spite of much-vaunted progress over recent years in cutting crime rates.
A surprising report released by the US Justice Department shows that no fewer than 6.9 million Americans are under the control of the prison system. That represents 3.2 per cent of the nation's adult population or almost as many people as live in New York City.
The statistics are discouraging news for authorities in many states and cities who are already trying to overcome prison overcrowding by taking such steps as releasing inmates early and even putting them in tents.
The report will also accelerate debate about restrictive sentencing laws that have meant offenders serving time for minor offences.
Last year, the population of America's federal prisons rose by 2.3 per cent while those in county and state jails jumped by 3.9 per cent. Altogether, there were just over two million Americans living in prison cells in 2003. Meanwhile, nearly five million others were on probation or on parole.
How these numbers can be rising while crime rates have been stable for several years or, in the case of serious crimes such as murder, have in fact fallen sharply, is not explained in the report. However, there is a likely correlation between the statistics and the rush over the past decade to introduce the stricter sentencing standards.
Most famous was the "three strikes and you're out" law passed in California in 1994, which decreed that anyone convicted of a crime for a third time - regardless of how serious or petty - would be put behind for bars for life. Crime rates came down in the state, but the state's incarceration rate multiplied fivefold. It is now costing California $6bn a year to run its prison system. Moreover, the state has the country's worst rate of recidivism, with 85 per cent of those who are released after serving time returning to prison within six months.
While the state has seen an increase in the construction of new prisons in the past 20 years, overcrowding is as much a problem there as elsewhere in America.
Last week, the county of San Bernardino, just east of Los Angeles, warned that it was being forced to release about 1,500 of inmates a month because it no longer had room in its jails to hold them.
The same strategy is being adopted all across the country as the numbers of prisoners overtakes the availability of cells. In Texas, the Board of Pardons and Paroles is granting early releases from its prisons at the highest rate in 10 years, largely in an effort to postpone prison overcrowding.
In Fort Pierce, Florida, authorities are planning to accommodate about 100 minimum-risk inmates in tents.
Prison overcrowding and arguments about sentencing practices are already issues in the presidential election. Last week, the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, voiced concern over the issues, especially about the haste with which courts incarcerate young people.
"I believe we have to stop being a nation content to spend as much as $50,000 a year to keep a young person in prison for life," he told a meeting of the Urban League. The money would be better spent on improving education and training, he said.
Coincidentally, there were reports yesterday that America's most famous inmate-in-waiting, Martha Stewart, may volunteer to serve her prison time earlier than strictly necessarily.
Lawyers for Ms Stewart confirmed that, after receiving a five-month sentence earlier this month for her crimes in trying to cover-up an illegal stock transaction, she may be willing to go to prison soon, even though she could in theory remain free until her the completion of her appeals process.