Much of the dramatic increase in our incarcerated population has resulted from increasingly strict tough-on-crime laws, like Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Out and the mandatory minimum sentencing statutes that have been applied especially to drug offenses. In the early 1970’s, the so-called Rockefeller law in New York State called for a sentence of at least 15 years for the possession or sale of even a small quantity of controlled substances. Other states and the federal government have followed this pattern. In federal prisons alone, up to 60 percent of inmates are there for drug offenses. The nation’s drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, has said that we cannot incarcerate our way out of the nation’s drug problem. Yet incarceration continues to be the path that is followed, despite findings like those of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs: that every dollar spent on treating substance abuse problems results in seven dollars in savings through reductions in crime and hospitalizations.
Indirectly, money motives also account for some of the increase in our incarcerated population. Rural areas with high rates of unemployment vie for new facilities in the hope that they will provide new jobs. Powerful correctional officers’ unions, too, lobby for more and more new prison construction for the same reason. Similarly, for-profit prison companies press state legislators for contracts that enable them to build and fill, as one critic has put it.
Race also enters the picture. Although only 13 percent of the American public, African-Americans represent half of all the people in jails and prisons. Some of this disproportion stems, again, from our approach to drug interdiction. Police drug sweeps, for instance, tend to target street-corner locations in inner city neighborhoods where arrests are easily made. Minority youth have been especially affected by this approach. In white suburban neighborhoods, by contrast, drug dealing can take place behind the relative safety of closed doors.
Crime rates of both juveniles and adults have been dropping across the country. Some tough-on-crime advocates claim that the drop is attributable to the harsher penalties now in place. But a study released in September by the non-profit Sentencing Project claims that much of the reduction in crime is due to economic expansion, changes in the drug traderelated to the lessening of the crack epidemicand new approaches to community policing. The same study also points out that states with the biggest increases in incarceration actually experience smaller declines in crime than other states that used incarceration less. Texas, for example, led the country with a 144 percent increase in incarceration between 1991 and 1998, and it did experience a 35 percent decrease in crime. But three other large states experienced still larger reductions in crime with much less use of imprisonment. Hence the title of the study, Diminishing Returns.
What, then, should we be doing? Expanding free access to residential drug treatment programs and prevention would go much further in reducing crime than the present incarcerational approach, and Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged early in her tenure of office that prenatal care is more important than prisons in reducing crime. The same might be said about better opportunities in the way of education, housing and health as poor children grow. At a later stage in life, creative interventions like the Rev. Eugene Rivers’s Ten Point Coalition (Am. 9/30)a partnership of police and church groups that has been successful in reducing youth crime in the Boston areashow promise as effective ways to address gang violence. Even for those already in prison, educational programs are known to reduce recidivism. Nevertheless, states tend to provide little funding for educational efforts, and some have cut back on what they had been providing.
Early indications are that the bishops will eventually issue a strong statement that will emphasize the need for reform of the criminal justice system. Such an approach would focus on crime prevention and poverty reduction. It would also include rejecting simplistic solutions like Three-Strikes-and-You’re-Outinsisting instead that punishment have a genuinely rehabilitative purpose, with a commitment to providing treatment for drug offenders. In addition, it will take into account the concerns of crime victims and their families. If legislators accept what the bishops propose, we can hope for a long overdue change in criminal justice policy.