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Incarceration Nation

The United States now incarcerates 753 out of every 100,000 of its adult citizens.  We're No. 1, by a huge margin:  Poland is second, with 240.  Most of the Western European nations aren't even in the rear-view mirror, averaging about a tenth of our rate.  Japan clocks in at a measly 63.

Actually, Ohio doesn't rank that high, either, with 586 per 100,000 adults.  Of course, the better indication of the real situation is that the figure back in 1971 was 112.  Or this:  in that period, spending on prisons in Ohio increased five times faster than spending on higher eduction.

Given the havoc wreaked upon state budgets by the current recession, it's not surprising that some would take a look at the money we're spending to lock people up.  The Center for Economic Policy & Research recently released a report (summary here, full report here) arguing that almost $17 billion a year could be saved by reducing incarceration rates to what they were in 1993, solely by halving the rate of incarceration of non-violent offenders.

Facing a deficit of several billion dollars over the next two years, the latest executive budget for Ohio (warning:  11 MB PDF file) also makes several proposals to cut back  the burgeoning growth of the prison population here, which is presently at 132% of capacity.  The report notes that the number of inmates has increased by one-quarter since 2002, and if that increase continues unchecked, the state will have to build six new prisons, at a cost of $1.1 billion for construction and an additional $250 million a year to run them.

The proposals are mainly directed toward reducing incarceration of 4th and 5th degree felony offenders; over 15,000 of them were admitted last year, representing 57% of the intake population.  The focal point of that is expanding community control diversion programs, and that might certainly be helpful; if judges had more effective house arrest, GPS monitoring, and work release progrmas as an alternative, they might send fewer people to prison. 

I'm not entirely convinced of that, though.  I think part of the problem is that judges develop a particular mindset, especially with regard to probation.  I've known a number of judges who will routinely place low-level drug offenders on probation, and then just as routinely violate them and ship them to prison the first time they test dirty.  Just a few months ago I had a judge send my client to prison for six months for breaking into a Kentucky Fried Chicken store that had been closed for two years, pointing out his "bad record."  That record consisted of three theft convictions, one a misdemeanor, in the past decade, and two B&E's in the ten years before that.  Sorry, that's not a bad record; a bad record is where you hurt people.

The other proposals, which the executive report labels "common sense sentencing reforms," include eliminating imprisonment for child support  offenses (there are 780 inmates in Ohio serving time for that offense), bringing back the use of "good-time credits" (inmates would get 7 days credit for month for completing programs), raising the monetary threshhold for felonies to $750 (it's been at $500 since 1996), and eliminating the crime of "escape" for failing to report to a meeting with a parole officer.

These are hardly drastic proposals; in fact, the net savings are only some $30 million a year, and a reduction in incarceration of about 4300 inmates, less than 10% of the total prison population.  In fact, that might be the biggest hurdle in getting them enacted; the paltry savings don't justify the political risks inherently involved in tangling with this subject.  After all, nobody ever got elected on a platform of putting fewer people in prison.  Perhaps nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the campaign of Republican guberantorial candidate Meg Whitman in California; given that state's budgetary crisis, which makes Ohio's look like an overdrawn check, her proposals for prison reform -- basically, to continue doing what has gotten the state to the position of having no place to put 40,000 inmates -- borders on the hallucinogenic.

That's certainly worse than the current candidates for Ohio's governor, but neither them are going to be featured in the updated version of Profiles in Courage.  Incumbent Ted Strickland's campaign website, while devoting a section to "Sportsmen's Rights," makes no mention whatosoever of any crime-related issue, let alone prison reform.  That's more than Republican candidate John Kasich provides; the "What We Stand For" portion of his website looks like it was written by a particularly dull student who barely managed to eke out a passing grade in high school civics.

These same proposals were bandied about last year, and went nowhere.  Don't be surprised if the past is prologue.

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