Prison Alternatives

In recent years, crime in the United States has generally gone down, and yet the prison population continues to grow - a troubling trend that needs to be arrested.

A new Justice Department report puts the 2002 inmate population at 2.1 million - a 2.6 percent jump over 2001 and the largest since 1999. If that sounds small, note that those statistics mean the federal prison population has grown by a stunning 69 percent since 1995 - and the state prison population by 22 percent.

The primary reason for the latest increases remains the same as in recent years - tough-on-crime policies that have increased prison time for both violent and nonviolent offenders.

Beyond the human costs of keeping minor offenders behind bars for long periods, many states are balking at the budget costs. Nationwide, the total bill for running prisons is estimated at $40 billion a year.

Kansas, Texas, Michigan, and Washington have done away with mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug offenses. In Washington, the state's drug-sentencing reforms have cut down on prison sentences for lower-level drug offenders. In 2002, the state found it could save $75 million in corrections costs and avoid building 2,000 new prison cells. This year, the state found it could save $40 million and reduce its prison population by 550 beds with a law that allows nonviolent offenders more time off for good behavior. The State Commissioner of Corrections and the state's leading prosecutor sought the changes.

Ohio developed new sentencing guidelines in the mid-1990s, with the idea of encouraging community-based corrections for nonviolent criminals. This included inmates making restitution to victims and receiving job training.

With 1 in every 143 US residents in federal, state, or local custody - half of them for nonviolent crimes - the need for changing corrective measures should be abundantly clear.

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