The Pew Center on the States has just released a report One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections which details the huge number of American adults under the supervision of the correctional system, which includes probation and parole as well as prisons and jails (though omitting juvenile facilities’ populations, pre-trial drug court supervisees and immigrants under detention, all of whom may account for an additional 1 million over the 7.4 million counted for this report). Last year’s One in 100: Behind Bars in America, 2008, also published by Pew, demonstrated that the United States had one out of every 100 adults incarcerated (2.3 million adults incarcerated at the end of 2007, which also didn’t include youth in detention), placing this country “ahead” of every other country, including China and Russia, in the percentage, and even the actual number, of its adult citizens in prison or jail. The current report demonstrates the even greater increase in numbers of Americans who come under corrections supervision over the past 25 years.
The report suggests that the nation has likely passed the point of diminishing returns in using incarceration to increase public safety, in that the cost to incarcerate lesser malefactors is greater than the costs of their crimes to the community (though not to the individual victim, whose personal loss isn’t considered in this report), and that community supervision, referring to both parole and probation, offers a better method for decreasing crime and rehabilitating most (though not all) offenders. Especially in the current economic climate, a few states’ legislators (e.g. Washington, Oregon, Kansas, Arizona and New York) are beginning to realize that a one-size-fits-all incarceration policy is no longer affordable or sensible and in varying ways beginning to move away from reliance on confinement. These several states have determined that it makes more economic and public safety sense to expand community supervision with more and better parole and probation officers rather than to build more prison cells. The report outlines some already field tested methods for enhancing community supervision in states as diverse as Texas and Vermont, Kansas and Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan, and suggests that it is past time for other states to follow suit. (The report refers readers to their Public Safety Performance as a source for a “menu of policy options”.)
This report is written for a wide readership. Unfortunately, as with the earlier report, there are errors of commission and of omission which may leave the reader with questions, though none are fatal. Assertions are made; not all are accurate. For example, on page 14 the report states that continual registration of sex offenders is a vital public safety task, while at least one federally funded research project found such monitoring to be without demonstrable impact on public safety. Some of the data in the report is presented in a misleading fashion, or so unclearly as to be either wrong or needing a clarification. One example are the “corrections costs” graphs for MA found in the press release, which appears to show prison costs annually rising at a much steeper rate than parole, except that the single “y” axis for the two plots 20 years with ¾” and a 2 year segment over ¼”; an accurate graph would make clear that the reverse is actually true. Additionally, in comparing costs of parole to prison, per day, the report apparently relies on the standard methodology of Parole systems which report a cost per case, regardless of whether that case is under supervision for 4 months or 5 years. (In MA, that method likely results in a halving of the true cost/day of parole. However, even doubling the cost of parole from $2500 to $5000 still leaves it “a bargain” compared to the annual cost of imprisonment at $48,000/year. In June, 2004, the Governor’s Commission on Correction Reform (The “Harshbarger Commission”) initial report put the annual cost of parole/parolee at $4000.) Other data only make sense with a careful reading of the endnotes. Finally, at several points they reference the national rate of incarceration per 100,000, which should be 1,000 in light of their prior report.; and yet they use the number 506/100,000 with the explanation (again in an endnote) that the earlier report compared adults in prison to the total adult population, while the current report compares adults under CJ supervision to the total adult and minor population (Endnote 30). It is difficult to keep track of when only adults are included and when minors are part of the population.
Despite these problems, the report and particularly its recommendations provide substantive directions as state governments try to both balance its budget and address issues of public safety. Their press release contains single sheets for each of the 50 states, which provide quick overviews of each states’ corrections expenses.