Past its Cell-By

Post Date: March 26, 2014

(Philadelphia Daily News Editorial) — The United States leads the world in putting its people behind bars. Think of this fact as a massive ocean liner whose engines went into overdrive in the 1980s and 1990s with the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing, exploding the prison rates.

Today, more than 2 million people are in U.S. prisons. A recent report by the Pew Charitable Trusts suggests that this speeding ocean liner may be slowing down, with many states actually working to turn the vessel around.

The good news is that 31 states have shown a decrease in imprisonment rates in the past five years. Texas is one of them.

Pennsylvania isn’t.

In fact, Pennsylvania showed an increase in imprisonment rates of 10 percent from 2007 to 2012, second only to West Virginia, which saw an increase of 13 percent. Those are the dates that Pew was measuring; in the decade beginning in 2000, the state increased its prison population by a whopping 40 percent.

You know it’s bad when Texas does anything better than we do.

The incarceration rate is not just a justice issue, but a budget problem. High imprisonment rates drive huge budgets. In 2009, it cost $35,000 a year to house an inmate in Pennsylvania, and the overall state corrections budget now exceeds $2 billion. That’s an investment worth questioning, especially since research continues to point to the thin connection between incarceration and crime rates.

The Pew report points out that crime went down in 90 percent of the states that decreased prison populations; it actually went up in one of the 15 states that increased its prison population. Many of those incarcerated are nonviolent drug offenders, and polls show that people are in favor of alternatives to incarceration that do a better and less expensive job. Not incidental is the fact that minorities comprise 61 percent of the state’s prison population. Read more