'Lock 'em up' mentality has failed us

July 23, 2006|By Ronald Fraser

Sadly, America's first national prison commission in 30 years failed to tackle, head-on, our lock 'em up culture and to find ways to reduce the number of people behind bars in Maryland and elsewhere. The commission's recent report is little more than a how-to manual to help wardens cope with overcrowded prisons that breed violence, disease and recidivism. What we really need is a road map to drastically shrink Maryland's prison population and, at the same time, save state taxpayers a lot of money.

In "Confronting Confinement," the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's prisons admits, "It was beyond the scope of our inquiry to explore how states and the federal government might sensibly reduce prisoner populations. Yet all that we studied is touched by, indeed in the grip of, America's unprecedented reliance on incarceration. We incarcerate more people at a higher rate than any country in the world."


The study rightly pins responsibility for our overcrowded prisons on tough-on-crime laws passed by state and federal legislators. But it does not look for ways to downsize America's booming prison industry, which adds more than 1,000 new inmates per week, costs more than $60 billion a year and employs about 750,000 workers to watch over 2.2 million inmates - almost double the 1990 prison population.

The commission never asked this question: Why pay room and board to put someone like Martha Stewart, or a pot smoker, or a car thief behind bars when modern electronic tracking devices can easily keep tabs on these nonviolent criminals at a fraction of the cost?

The good news: Maryland is one of 13 states headed in the right direction. From 2003 to 2004, state inmates dropped by 506. The bad news: Maryland taxpayers still shelled out about $636 million in 2003 to hire 15,174 state and local corrections employees to watch over 36,800 inmates. That's about $17,280 per year, per inmate.

Nationally, about one-half of all state prisoners have been convicted of violent crimes, including murder and assault. The other half - in the case of Maryland, about 18,400 inmates - are nonviolent, many of them convicted of possession or sale of small quantities of drugs. For such offenders - and for low-level burglars and embezzlers - prison can do more harm than good. Many will leave prison more violent and possessing better criminal skills than when they arrived. And even those who want to go straight will have a hard time finding a legitimate job.

Why not treat these offenders differently? The Council of State Governments reports that halfway houses and nonresidential, community-based supervision programs, including day reporting centers, community service and other work assignments, are viable alternatives to incarceration. These alternatives also allow offenders to build work and social skills needed to avoid future run-ins with the law.

In 2003, Marylanders also spent $459 million, or about $5,010 per year to supervise each of 91,600 non-incarcerated convicts. That means for every nonviolent inmate shifted from inside prison to nonprison punishment, taxpayers could save upwards of $12,270 per year. If all 18,400 non-violent inmates were released to alternative punishments, the state could potentially save $225 million annually.

Five years ago, California started sending drug offenders to treatment programs instead of prison and, based on a recent UCLA study, the state has saved about $173 million a year and no longer needs to build a planned new prison. Total savings: $1.4 billion. Maryland is cutting its prison populations and saving money with a similar program.

Overcrowded, violent and disease-filled prisons and jails are here to stay as long as the number of inmates sent to prison goes up year after year. As a society, we are quick to needlessly fill prisons with nonviolent inmates, and too slow to find alternative ways to punish and rehabilitate them.

We now need a second commission to finish the job, and publish a step-by-step road map for ending America's "unprecedented reliance on incarceration."

Ronald Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project. Write him at

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