Has the Tide Turned on Mass Imprisonment in the USA?

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While prison reform has hardly figured in the US Presidential campaign, there are signs that America’s love affair with incarceration may be coming to an end.  Hard pressed states can no longer afford the luxury of imprisonment on a scale that dwarfs European rates.  At its peak in 2008, despite spending 11.5% of its budget on prisons,  California still had inmates living on  three level bunks in prison gyms or other forms of “non traditional housing”. Federal and Supreme Court judgements have forced the state to reduce its prison numbers to less than 135% of capacity by next June.

Using a range of measures, the state may just about be on course to meet its target, with numbers falling from more than 170,000 to 133,000 in the last five years. Reforming parole practices so that ex prisoners are not automatically returned for  technical violations, allowing prisoners to earn early release and strengthening alternatives to detention have been  conventional ways of dampening demand along with modest reforms to criminal statutes.

More controversial has been the way that the 2011 Public Safety Realignment Act has shifted responsibility for lower level offenders from the state to the 58 counties. County jails and probation staff are now dealing with many more offenders than hitherto, expanding capacity with a billion dollar grant from the state and managing demand through reforms to pre trial detention and sheriff’s powers to release prisoners early.

California’s cap may have been imposed by the courts but it is not alone in downsizing its prison population. Pennsylvania ‘s senate has passed laws seeking  to divert non-violent, addicted offenders from state prison by better treating their addiction issues at the local level. New York’s fall in prison numbers is well known Even Texas has embraced changes such as problem solving courts with individualised treatment programs for drug offenders, drunk drivers, veterans and sex workers, some of whom at least would previously have gone to prison.

The trend is not universal with Idaho running out of space and sending prisoners to neighbouring states. Overcrowding in Illinois has led to a class action in a prison where men allegedly have to remove cockroach faeces from their pillows and clothing. The federal system too has a growing prison population and faces years of overcrowding. Currently there is much less scope within it than in the state systems for shortening sentences or transferring inmates.

Next year’s conference of the International Correction and Prisons Association (ICPA) has the title Thinking Outside the Cell -Reducing the Use of Imprisonment. The venue is perhaps surprisingly not in Europe but in Colorado.  This is a state, it was reported this week, that faces paying for a new prison, that due to falling numbers,  it no longer needs. The Conference theme may be optimistic but suggests that the tide may have turned. Mr President – Please take note .


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