The state is behind in its population reduction effort, and the corrections department is requesting an extension -– all of which provides legislators with cause to take a more active role, the analyst's office argues. “Moreover, as the high court itself noted, how the state achieves compliance with the inmate population targets involves some important policy choices about how to achieve compliance with federal court orders at the least risk to the safety of the public,” the report says.
Proportionally, the United States has four times as many prisoners as Israel, six times as many as Canada or China, eight times as many as Germany and 13 times as many as Japan. With just a little more than 4 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for a quarter of the planet’s prisoners and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined. Almost all the other nations with high per capita prison rates are in the developing world.
One out of every 99 adults is quarantined behind bars in the United States, with larger and larger swaths of the civilian work force deployed as a captor class. Although academic scholars have been analyzing the social costs of our 30-year punishment binge for some time, the American public has been oddly disinterested in our de-evolution into a full-blown prison nation.
The world is overly familiar with the US “war on terror” prisons like Abu Ghraib and its off-shore Guantanamo prison. Less well known or cared about is the vast complex of more mundane prisons, much of whose population is collateral damage from the equally misnamed “war on drugs”. The personal and societal damage from treating drug use as a criminal problem is the focus of Ernest Drucker's A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America.
The U.S. Supreme Court in May upheld an earlier ruling that the state’s prisons are unconstitutionally overcrowded, compromising inmate health care.
States should decriminalize offenses such as feeding the homeless, dog-leash violations, and turnstile jumping on the subway. Such reform is vital: between 1972 and 2006, misdemeanor prosecutions rose from 5 million to 10.5 million.
The number of mentally ill people ending up in US jails skyrocketed when the US government began shutting state-run hospitals in the 1980s. Pointing to the structural flaws in the country’s criminal justice system, Sheriff Greg Hamilton of Travis County in Austin, Texas, added his voice to the criticism, emphasizing that “it seems to me that we have criminalized being mentally ill.”
Drug offenders account for 25 percent of the U.S. prison population. Largely because of the war on drugs, the per capita number of prisoners more than doubled between 1985 and 1997. The U.S. imprisonment rate for drug offenses (149 per 100,000 population in 1995) exceeds the rates of most Western European nations for all crimes (for example, 95 per 100,000 population for France in 1995).
In 2008, the 50 states spent $52 billion on corrections, almost all of it on prisons. It’s become the second fastest growing segment in most state budgets, even as the crime rates have consistently declined. And what’s driving the budget crisis in corrections is the explosion of inmates and the longer sentences they now serve.
In May 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that California prisons were in violation of the Eighth Amendment and its prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. It ordered the early release of tens of thousands of inmates.
Overcrowding also creates unsafe and unsanitary conditions, diverts prison resources away from education and social development, and forces low- and high-risk offenders to mingle, increasing the likelihood of recidivism.