Still-Bulging Prisons

The justice department has released its latest census of prisons and jails across the country, and the tally continues to rise - even as crime statistics fall. The United States is now home to a record 1.8 million inmates.

The reasons for this are complicated. But two factors stand out: Arrests of drug users and sellers are triple what they were 15 years ago, and tough sentencing laws mandate prison stays for these people, as well as many other types of offenders.

In recent years, sentencing reforms have veered increasingly toward mandatory time, longer time, and less possibility of parole. The "three strikes" laws enacted in California and a number of other states are typical.

Some find reassurance in the prison population figures. The more convicts behind bars - particularly repeat offenders - the greater the reduction in crime. There are elements of truth in that. But when does the incarceration curve start to dip? Nearly twice as many people are in prison in the US than a decade ago. It's estimated the country will need a new 1,000-bed facility every week in the decade ahead to keep up with current trends.

That means an ever-larger portion of state and federal spending devoted to locking people away. States alone are pouring almost $30 billion into prisons yearly. That may suit those who build or operate prisons - whether private corrections companies or prison-guard unions - just fine. But does it really serve the nation?

Instead of staying on a perpetual prison escalator, decisionmakers should consider ways of slowing it down. One important step is to rethink sentencing laws related to drug possession. As no less an authority than federal drug-policy chief Barry McCaffrey has said, "We can't incarcerate our way out of this problem." Drug treatment options should be greatly expanded, so that small-time users are helped to break the habit while getting on with their lives - instead of being locked away on a public tab of some $20,000 a year.

Another step: Roll back some of the sentencing laws that allow judges little or no discretion. There have been enough tragic stories about lives ruined or injustice perpetrated by these laws to amply make the point that judges ought to be able to take into account individual circumstances. A society that whittles away the possibility of judicial intuition and compassion is weakening its moral moorings.

The country's bulging prison population is a warning that shouldn't be ignored.

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