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Thursday, March 30, 2006,12:14 PM
1000 new prisoners a week
Jail population surges to 700,000: advocates and elected officials call for increasing re-entry programs and prison reforms

Washington, DC – According to data to be released by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) this Sunday, the number of individuals incarcerated in jails and prisons grew by 48,452 between midyear 2003 to 2004. Driven largely by growing federal and state prison populations, and huge increases in jail populations during the past 4 years, BJS reports the incarcerated population grew by 932 people each week.

Despite crime being in decline for over a decade, these numbers show a persistent rise in prison population, and push the US’s rate of incarceration to a startling 726 per 100,000-maintaining the US status as the world’s leading incarcerator (*England-142, *China-118, *France-91, *Japan-58, *Nigeria-31---*Incarceration rates per 100,000 citizens).

“Unless we promote alternatives to prison, the nation will continue to lead the world in imprisonment,” says Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “While the numbers of incarcerated people continue to rise, some legislators are realizing that by removing the barriers to housing and jobs that formerly incarcerated individuals face when re-entering their communities, we can improve public safety, cut corrections costs, and rebuild communities.”

Prisoners and Jail Inmates at Mid-Year 2004 shows that between mid-year 2003 and 2004, the jail population grew by 3.3%, the state prison population by 1.3%, and the federal prison population by 6.3%. The increase in the federal population is unnerving to some since Congress is currently considering HR 1528, legislation that could drastically increase the federal prison population even more.

“The mandatory sentences in HR 1528 are cruelly punitive and destructive," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). "Despite a growing national movement away from mandatory sentencing laws, HR 1528 creates new mandatory sentences and senselessly increases existing ones. It targets parents with mandatory sentences if they witness their children using or selling drugs and do not turn them in and it would completely remove a judge’s discretion to consider the facts or the individual’s role in all federal cases.”

While more people are coming into the prison system through the front end, around the country, federal and state legislatures are considering a flurry of reforms designed to help the 650,000 people who leave prison each year to return to their communities.

Nearly two-thirds of people released from prison are re-arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor. A spectrum of federal legislators, including Rep. Robert Portman (R-OH) and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH) are working to pass the Second Chances Act (HR-1704), legislation that will coordinate federal policies on re-entry and increase job opportunities, housing, substance abuse, and mental health treatment, as well as provide support for families of those re-entering society.

Some states are reluctant to enact the kinds of reforms needed to reduce prison populations, or ease the burden on people returning to communities. In California, which has the second lowest level of parole success the nation, the state recently scrapped plans to reduce the parole failure rate by diverting people to drug treatment and community corrections instead of prison—even though these policies had already been shown to be reducing parole returns. Instead of closing prisons, which the state had originally projected it would do, the administration is instead pressing ahead to open the state’s 34th prison at Delano.

“There is more than a decade of evidence that California’s pre-reform parole system was a billion-dollar failure resulting in the highest return to prison rate in the country,” said Dorsey Nunn, a member of the Coalition for Effective Public Safety (CEPS). “It’s ironic that because we purportedly don’t have evidence that these reforms are working, we instead choose to return to a system we know is a disaster.”

Prisoners and Jail Inmates at Mid-Year 2004 continued to show an alarming rise in the number of people incarcerated as 13 states reported at least a 5% increase in their prison populations, led by Minnesota (13.2%), Montana (10.5%), and Arkansas (8.9%). On the flipside, 12 states including Connecticut, Alabama, and Ohio, saw their incarcerated populations drop. According to the survey, jails were holding nearly 100,000 more people than they were in 2000.

“We should be alarmed at the growth that we are witnessing in the local jail population, which has continued to rise exponentially,” says Dana Kaplan, a policy analyst with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City who is studying jail expansion.

Kaplan said the growth was caused by factors including: increased arrest rates for low-level offenses, particularly in low-income neighborhoods where many residents cannot meet bail, the increased detention of non-citizen immigrants in county facilities, and a rising number of people with mental illness who were formerly residing in mental health facilities. She said jail growth could easily be addressed by implementing the reforms that move people through, and frequently out, of the system faster.

The Justice Policy Institute is a Washington DC-based think tank dedicated to ending society’s reliance on incarceration and promoting effective and just solutions to social problems. For more information on the issues cited here, please contact the commentators listed above, or contact Malik Russell at (202.363.7847x308, or cell 202-271-0742), or visit our website at www.justicepolicy.org
posted by R J Noriega
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