The U.S. Justice Department released a report describing the current state of the nation’s penitentiaries on Monday. In an article published in The New York Times on Tuesday, Justice Department officials described a 0.3 percent growth in the number of convicted criminals behind bars. This growth, although not staggering, was enough to push the prison population above the 2 million mark for the first time in U.S. history. The report reveals an even more troubling statistic: despite decades of reform and public pressure, an estimated 12 percent of black men between 20 and 34 are in jail. Furthermore, the Justice Department has calculated that 28 percent of all African-American men will spend time in jail over the course of their lifetime.
Many have rightly criticized our bulging prison system as a failing institution too divided based on race. Despite more and more people sent to prison each year, crime rates continue to climb in many states. Drug offenders, whose crimes often stem from addiction and poverty rather than malice, are a large reason for these continual increases. Once in prison, individuals convicted of drug-related crimes often do not receive the treatment they require, and are let back on the streets unchanged from the day they entered the system.
Even assuming the mechanism of our criminal justice system is working well, the expanding prison population is still a tremendous expenditure. Seeing to its reform and reduction will not only benefit prisoners in the way of providing necessary support, but it will also allow states to free up resources for other initiatives like education and health care improvements.
The report confirms what most already knew about the American prison system – it’s growing. While most states saw small to modest individual increases, others managed to avoid the trend toward ever growing prison populations. Texas managed to decrease its number of inmates by finding alternatives to prison for parole violators. California changed its drug sentences, opting for treatment over jail time for some drug offenders. Efforts by states like Texas and California to reform their systems have paid dividends, as each state saw a drop in its overall prison populations and the corresponding cost associated with mass incarceration. These decreases illustrate clearly how important reforms such as these are, especially with such drastic budget issues in the state of Michigan.
Lansing has already taken steps to curb the size of its prison system. Responding to public pressure over the treatment of its drug offenders, Michigan has done away with mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes. The state should seek to replicate reductions like those seen in California, a state with the largest prison population in the nation. While the abolition of mandatory minimums was a commendable step, a more thorough restructuring of the way Michigan punishes its drug violations is needed to ensure that the size of its inmate population diminish.