Prison Populations Rising even as Crime Rates Fall

Prison Populations Rising even as Crime Rates Fall
Posted by FoM on March 07, 1999 at 07:14:05 PT
Many new inmates are drug offenders!
By all logic, prisons in the United States should be experiencing a few vacancies. After all, the economy could hardly be better, and crime has fallen steeply six years in a row.
But a prison peace dividend is nowhere in sight. The number of people held in federal and state prisons and local jails will soon likely reach 2 million, almost double the number a decade ago, and triple the number two decades ago.No matter how much crime plummets, the United States will still have to add the equivalent of a new 1,000-bed prison every week -- for perhaps another decade, federal officials say.A big reason is that so many of the new inmates are drug offenders. In the federal system, nearly 60 percent of all people behind bars are doing time for drug violations; in state prisons and local jails, the figure is 22 percent. These numbers are triple the rate of 15 years ago.Americans do not use more drugs, on average, than people in other nations; but the United States, virtually alone among Western democracies, has chosen incarceration for drug offenders. More than 400,000 people are behind bars for drug crimes -- and nearly a third of them are locked up simply for possessing an illicit drug.``America's internal gulag,'' is what federal drug czar Barry McCaffrey calls the expanding mass of drug inmates. Many of those have committed any number of crimes. But a growing number of them have broken no laws other than the ones on drug use.The idea behind the mandatory-sentencing laws for drug offenders was that if more people were put jail, the crime rate would fall. That did happen.But another dividend was supposed to be a drop in drug use, which has not happened. Arrests of drug users just hit an all-time high. Drug use has gone up among the young. Over all, drug use has not budged for 10 years. Meanwhile, there have been stunning drops in murder, robbery and assault.Many experts who assert the prison boom has taken the worst criminals out of circulation -- and has thus been the biggest factor in reducing crime -- are at a loss to explain the drug-use increase.Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that has been critical of the prison buildup, said, ``We may be getting to the point of diminishing returns -- the more you expand the prison system, the more small fry you put in there.''
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