U.S. Prison Population Seeing “Unprecedented Increase” -
The research wing of the U.S. Congress is warning that three decades of “historically unprecedented” build-up in the number of prisoners incarcerated in the United States have led to a level of overcrowding that is now “taking a toll on the infrastructure” of the federal prison system.
Over the past 30 years, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the federal prison population has jumped from 25,000 to 219,000 inmates, an increase of nearly 790 percent. Swollen by such figures, for years the United States has incarcerated far more people than any other country, today imprisoning some 716 people out of every 100,000. (Although CRS reports are not made public, a copy can be found here.)
“This is one of the major human rights problems within the United States, as many of the people caught up in the criminal justice system are low income, racial and ethnic minorities, often forgotten by society,” Maria McFarland, deputy director for the U.S. programme at Human Rights Watch, told IPS.
In recent years, as a consequence of the imposition of very harsh sentencing policies, McFarland’s office has seen new patterns emerging of juveniles and very elderly people being put in prison.
“Last year, some 95,000 juveniles under 18 years of age were put in prison, and that doesn’t count those in juvenile facilities,” she noted.
“And between 2007 and 2011, the population of those over 64 grew by 94 times the rate of the regular population. Prisons clearly aren’t equipped to take care of these aging people, and you have to question what threat they pose to society – and the justification for imprisoning them.”
According to the new CRS report, a growing number of these prisoners are being put away for charges related to immigration violations and weapons possession. But the largest number is for relatively paltry drug offences – an approach that report author Nathan James, a CRS analyst in crime policy, warns may not be useful in bringing down crime statistics.
“Research suggests that while incarceration did contribute to lower violent crime rates in the 1990s, there are declining marginal returns associated with ever increasing levels of incarceration,” James notes. He suggests that one potential explanation for this could be that people have been increasingly incarcerated for crimes in which there is a “high level of replacement”.
For instance, he says, if a serial rapist is incarcerated, the judicial system has the power to prevent further sexual assaults by that offender, and it is likely that no one will take the offender’s place. “However, if a drug dealer is incarcerated, it is possible that someone will step in to take that person’s place,” James writes. “Therefore, no further crimes may be averted by incarcerating the individual.”
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