05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

New Prison Report: Some Slight Cause for Encouragement

A new report from the Pew Center on the States suggests a slight decline last year of the number of people in state prisons to just over 1.4 million people, the first such drop since 1972. Lest we open the champagne too quickly, the report also said the number of federal inmates rose, leading to a slight overall increase in the total prison population.

Still there are some crumbs of encouragement in the report which illustrated wide variations between individual states. Among the 27 jurisdictions where the prison population fell, not all of the decline could be explained by the current budget crisis affecting the states. Several had adopted smarter policies to stop the growth in their inmate numbers. California is no longer as eager to return ex-inmates behind bars for minor parole violations; Michigan has found ways to release people who have served their minimum sentences without endangering public safety; Texas has invested in community-based treatment and diversion programs to keep people out of prison; Nevada expanded opportunities for inmates to earn "good time" through positive behavior.

Still, the U.S. incarceration rate as a proportion of the population remains five to ten times greater than that of other democracies. There are still more Americans behind bars than working on farms or in higher education or public welfare.

According to Pew, corrections costs have quadrupled in just the past 20 years, and now account for 1 of every 15 state general fund discretionary dollars. Corrections has been the second fastest-growing category of state budgets, behind only Medicaid, and nearly 90 percent of that spending has gone to prisons.

In discussing the U.S. prison system, the first thing we should ask is, how did we get to where we are? How did the system grow so massive? It was not an accident. It was the result of deliberate policy, a national act of will that amounts to a vast and unprecedented social experiment. While gutting much of its social safety net by slashing welfare programs, subsidized housing for the poor and treatment for the mentally ill, the United States has turned incarceration into the de facto final destination for those unable to find a place for one reason or another in our education-based, high-tech, winner-take-all economy.

For most of the 20th century, up until around 1970, the U.S. prison population had remained remarkably stable. In 1972, there were only some 326,000 Americans behind bars, yielding a rate of around 160 per 100,000 in the population, in a little higher but not drastically out of line with other Western democracies. Now, according to the latest Justice Department figures, the U.S. incarceration rate stands at 754 per 100,000 - by far the highest in the world.

The prison population started to climb at a moment in U.S. history when the Civil Rights movement had faltered. Poverty and hopelessness overtook many of America's inner cities, breeding addiction, crime and violence. As race riots shook American cities in the summer of 1968, Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon seized the issue.

Nixon coined the phrase "War on Drugs" which he intended as a stark contrast to President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty." Over time, as the country became more and more conservative, the war on drugs gradually supplanted the war on poverty on the U.S. political agenda, sucking up millions of lives and billions of dollars, while yielding little or no progress. The war on drugs became the single biggest factor behind the explosion in America's prison population.

After 1985, the California prison system added more prisoners each year than the system had added in the average decade between 1950 and 1980. But California was dwarfed by Texas, which went from a relatively small system in the 1960s with around 14,000 inmates in 12 penal farms that largely paid for themselves, to a $2.5 billion a year behemoth running 144 facilities with around 150,000 inmates.
In 1995 alone, 150 new prisons were built in the United States and 171 existing prisons were expanded. The following year, contractors broke ground of 26 new federal penitentiaries and 96 state prisons. In New York, the state went from 21 to 71 prisons within 25 years, while its inmate population grew from 12,500 to over 70,000.

The Pew report suggests this kind of craziness may have run its course in some states which have finally begun to think critically and creatively about the effects of mass incarceration. It is high time. Our 30-year love affair with prisons has caused untold harm to individuals, families and communities that can never be undone. As the Pew report notes in its conclusion, "No matter what happens in the short term, with more than 1.6 million people currently in state and federal prisons and more than 700,000 additional people in local jails, the United States will continue to lead the world in incarceration for the foreseeable future."