There is an AP news story by Jeff Carlton this weekend revealing that the US prison population may drop for the first time in almost four decades, with one state having a notable exception.
Let me see if you can guess which. Seems that Florida, which has, of course, enacted a law requiring all convicts to serve a high percentage of their sentences, is the anomaly. So our prisons are bulging at the seems, while other states streamline their unnecessary detainees.
Nationally, inmate population has risen steadily since the early 1970s while states adopted get-tough policies that sent more people to prison and kept them there longer. But tight budgets now have states rethinking these policies and the costs that come with them.
"It's a reversal of a trend that's been going on for more than a generation," said David Greenberg, a sociology professor at New York University. "In some ways, it's overdue." Of course it is overdue. Especially with nearly a million people a year still getting arrested on pot charges.
About 739,000 prisoners were admitted to state and federal facilities last year, about 3,500 more than were released, according to new figures from the bureau. The 0.8 percent growth in the prison population is the smallest annual increase this decade and significantly less than the 6.5 percent average annual growth of the 1990s. Overall, there were 1.6 million prisoners in state and federal prisons at the end of 2008. Nothing to be proud of.
In Texas, parole rates were once among the lowest in the nation, with as few as 15 percent of inmates being granted release as recently as five years ago. Now, the parole rate is more than 30 percent after Texas began identifying low-risk candidates for parole. That is in a state where George Bush was once governor. Even in Mississippi, laws requiring drug offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences have been reduced dramatically, recognition that continued treatment is more important than mandated incarceration.
California's budget problems are expected to result in the release of 37,000 inmates in the next two years. The state also is under a federal court order to shed 40,000 inmates because its prisons are so overcrowded that they are no longer constitutional, the AP article reports.
States also are looking at ways to keep people from ever entering prison. A nationwide system of drug courts takes first-time felony offenders caught with less than a gram of illegal drugs and sets up a monitoring team to help with case management and therapy. But here in Broward you get cases going to court where persons are found with less than one tenth of one gram of coke. Residue cases they are called. How foolish. How about a mandatory referral to drug court instead?
Experts across the country now acknowledge that drug courts are the single most important mechanism in helping drive down prison populations. By enhancing treatment and supervision, allowing for rehab instead of jail, criminal justice budgets are stabilized not stretched and addicts are counseled. Reform. It is not a dirty word. I wish prosecutors and politicians here at home would understand that.