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Joshua Page

Joshua Page, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, is one of nine leading criminology and penal experts who wrote the report "Unlocking America: Why and How to Reduce America's Prison Population."

Out from behind bars

Report offers suggestions for reducing America's prison population

By Rick Moore

May 13, 2008

The United States is on top of the world in a big statistic, but before you start waving the flag and chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A," consider the statistic.

We are the world's leader in imprisoning people.

According to a recent Pew report, more than 1 in every 100 adults is now behind bars in the United States, the first time we've ever crossed that threshold. That translates to approximately 2.3 million Americans who are in prison or jail. The country with the next most prisoners is China, with 1.6 million, but China has about four times as many people.

What makes the number of U.S. citizens incarcerated even more sobering is that the number of violent crimes has actually decreased over the last two decades, while prison rates have soared.

A major report, "Unlocking America," cowritten by nine leading criminology and penal experts--including the University of Minnesota's Joshua Page--explores the causes of the exploding prison population and offers suggestions for reversing the numbers. Among the report's recommendations are eliminating prison as a sanction for technical parole and probation violations, reducing the length of some prison sentences, and reducing the number of people incarcerated for "victimless" crimes, including many drug offenses.

"We need to reduce the number of people that are going to prison and be methodical about reserving prison beds and allocating resources for the most serious and violent offenders, and figure out alternative sanctions for other offenders."

According to Page, the number of people incarcerated grew for various reasons. More people have been given prison sentences instead of alternative sanctions such as probation, particularly for drug offenses. In addition, sentences have become longer, with mandatory minimum sentences and the implementation of "truth-in-sentencing," which reduces the amount of time that can be deducted from a sentence for good behavior (making it more "true" to the original sentence).

While many sentences seem appropriate, the report lists some examples of people who were given lengthy amounts of prison time for relatively minor offenses. Perhaps the most eye-catching example: Jessica Hall, an unemployed mother of three children with a husband in the Marines serving in Iraq, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for "throwing a missile at an occupied vehicle." The missile, in this case, was a cup of McDonald's coffee that she hurled at another car that had cut her off on the road.

Fitting the punishment to the crime

"We need to reduce the number of people that are going to prison and be methodical about reserving prison beds and allocating resources for the most serious and violent offenders, and figure out alternative sanctions for other offenders," Page says.

Last year, roughly 32 percent of new admissions to Minnesota prisons were for people who violated the terms of their probation or parole, known as "technical violators," Page says. (This could be for reasons like failing a drug test or not finding work.) "And then if you add the 21.6 percent that are for drug offenses, more than half of Minnesota's prison population are for [technical] violators and drugs."

The authors of the report recommend that technical violators not be sent to prison. The same goes for drug users, unless the drug use is tied to violence or other "prison-viable" crimes, Page says. "For drug use alone and petty drug dealing, we do not think prison should be a sanction."

Page and the other authors recommend decriminalizing victimless crimes, meaning people would not receive any criminal punishment for drug use, prostitution, and the like. They also suggest that states use alternative sanctions for some offenders who currently serve prison sentences--for instance, selective property offenders. Options might include paying restitution or performing community service, whether it's picking up roadside trash or serving food at a homeless shelter.

"There are all kinds of other sanctions that we feel would be far more productive, that wouldn't be bankrupting the state," he says. It costs tens of thousands of dollars per year to house a prisoner, and the United States spends more than $60 billion annually for corrections.

The report also suggests a hybrid system of sentencing, in which states would set a "ceiling" and a "floor" term for each crime and the judge would have the discretion to adjust the sentence based on mitigating circumstances. A range might be 5 to 10 years for robbery, for instance, but if the criminal had an otherwise clean record and the crime wasn't violent, the judge might decide to choose a sentence on the low end of the range.

"It would be a way to individualize sentencing and really take into account these utilitarian considerations," Page says. "But the '5 to 10' would ensure that the punishment is fitting the crime, so you wouldn't get 30 years for burglary and you wouldn't get two months."

The report has two additional recommendations: improving the conditions of imprisonment and restoring ex-prisoner voting and other rights, which would help them better reintegrate into society.

"Prisons that systematically deny human dignity, basic human rights, and life necessities are creating festering sores that poison the entire society," the report says. "Unsafe, inhuman, and secretive prisons not only traumatize the incarcerated but also contaminate prison staff and their families, as well as townsfolk near the prison.

"More generally, support for an inhumane prison system requires that prison workers and the public embrace the simplistic concept that prisoners are unworthy beings that deserve their harsh punishment above and beyond the segregation from society and loss of freedom from incarceration itself."

Then there's the matter of the sheer numbers: one percent of all adults behind bars.

"The fact of the matter is, sending this many people to prison is quite harmful, not only to the people but to communities and society at large," Page says. "It's not just a matter of being fair, it's a matter of being smart."

And if Americans need another reason to be concerned about the prison population, it could be the bottom line. If the report's recommendations were to go into effect, it's estimated we would realize an annual savings of approximately $20 billion--money that could be going to crime-prevention strategies or any other number of good uses.

In California, where Page is from, the state budget is set up in a way that funding for corrections competes directly with funding for higher education. "When people start to recognize that sending all these people to prison is literally taking away other vital resources, it hits home," he says.


You can download the complete report at Unlocking America.