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Lawmakers Work on Reducing Inmate Population

By: Gerri L. Elder

Few people really have a clear idea of exactly how crowded the prison systems in America really are and how much money it actually takes to run them. For those of us who are not in jail it may be hard to fathom just what goes on there.

A recent report by CBS News stated that currently, more than 1% of Americans is doing time behind bars in a jail or prison in the United States. That startling statistic was taken from a new report on the increasing prison population.

The Pew Center on the States released the report, which indicated that more than $49 billion was spent on corrections last year by the 50 states, collectively. Twenty years ago the 50 states spent less than $11 billion in prison costs. Inflation accounts for some of the rise in costs, but the surge of inmates is a real cause for concern.

Recently on CNN, a person commented that it would be cheaper to send people to college than to prison. While that comment may have been tongue-in-cheek, it is not untrue.

According to the study, 1 out of 99.1 adults in America are in jail. We have more people in jail than any other country in the world. At the beginning of the year there were 2,319,258 people housed in jails and prisons across the country.

In mid 2002, 1 in 142 people in the United States was in jail or prison and the prison population rose above 2 million for the first time in history.

The report concluded that the increase of prisoners is placing a huge financial burden on state budgets while doing little to deter crime or prevent former prisoners from re-offending. Apparently jail is a crowded place, but overall not that bad. At least not terrible enough to instill a fear that would make people think about it before committing a crime, or re-offending.

In some areas, laws are being proposed that on the outside appear to be soft on crime. These laws are designed to save money, not necessarily to let people who commit certain crimes off the hook. For instance, The Dallas Morning News reported recently that police in Dallas might soon start to take advantage of a state law that would allow them to write citations for some non-violent criminal charges for which they currently haul offenders to jail. Patrol officers are in favor of writing tickets, rather than taking offenders to jail, which requires more paperwork and takes them off their beats for long periods of time. The city likes the idea of not housing non-violent offenders in their jail, which houses 6,000 inmates and has repeatedly failed inspections.

More states are passing laws, such as the Texas crime law, to ease the financial burden of housing so many inmates by jailing less people. The trend is to help less dangerous criminals stay out of jail by using community supervision programs and to not jail people for technical parole and probation violations, but to impose other sanctions instead.

The goal is to keep as many non-violent criminals out of jail and have them be productive taxpayers, so as to help support the criminals that do have to be put behind bars.

Lawmakers are proceeding with caution in an effort to reduce the financial strain of the prison systems. Certainly there are people in jail that don’t need to be, and then there are those that have committed serious crimes that warrant incarceration. Care is being taken not to give dangerous criminals a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card, while being more creative in the punishment for crimes that are less serious in order to alleviate some of the prison overcrowding. It is a delicate balance between protecting public safety and ensuring that the prison systems don’t bust the budget.

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