Broadcast: May 5, 2003
Crime in the United States has decreased in recent years. One problem now is what to do about crowded prisons. I’m Phoebe Zimmermann with Steve Ember.
The criminal justice system is our report this week the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.
A new report says more than two-million people were in prisons and jails in the United States at the end of June two-thousand-two. That is the most ever. The country already had among the highest rates of imprisonment in the world.
The government report says about four-and-a-half-million others were on probation or parole last year. People on probation have not been sentenced to jail. Instead, they are under court supervision. People on parole have been freed from prison. They must obey restrictions and also report to officials for supervision.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics prepared the report. The report shows that, as of last year, one in every thirty-two people in the nation had been found guilty of a crime. The United States has a national population of two-hundred-ninety-million people.
The number of prisoners in America has increased by four-hundred percent since the middle of the nineteen-eighties.
Nationally, the rate of violent crime has decreased to its lowest level in the thirty years it has been measured.
During those years, so-called “get tough” laws have provided longer sentences for some offenses, including drug crimes.
Two-thirds of the prisoners in the United States are in federal or state prisons. Local jails hold the other one-third. People found guilty of serious crimes usually are sentenced to prisons. People awaiting trial or sentenced for lesser offenses usually are held in jails.
There are different kinds of prisons. Prisoners who are not considered a danger to others may be sent to a minimum-security prison without many restrictions. The most dangerous prisoners are sent to maximum-security prisons where life is extremely controlled.
Over the years, the United States has made prison reforms. Today, corrections experts and prison-reform activists propose more changes. For example, they say more job training may help keep prisoners from returning to jail once they are freed.
There were record numbers of prisoners last year. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics says the growth rate of imprisonment had already leveled off by then. It calls the rise of imprisonment during the nineteen-eighties and nineties “dramatic.”
Half the states have acted against overcrowding. Big states like California and Texas have released thousands of prisoners to save money and space.
Critics of the criminal justice system say long prison sentences are not necessarily making society safer. But the Supreme Court recently upheld a “three strikes” law in California.
This law affects people found guilty of three crimes. The law orders that they serve from twenty-five years to life in prison. This is true even if their third crime was considered minor. In the case that reached the Supreme Court, the third crime was stealing golf equipment.
One more thing about California: The state just reported a four-percent increase in major crimes last year. Murders in the biggest population centers, though down from ten years ago, were up eleven percent from the year before.
Some criminal justice officials say the increase in federal prisoners in the United States is of special concern. In two-thousand-two, federal prisons held almost one-hundred-sixty-two-thousand people. This is the first time the federal system has had more prisoners than any of the fifty states.
This happened partly because the Federal Bureau of Prisons took control of prisoners formerly held by the District of Columbia. But, also, Congress has expanded the federal prison system. Congress has added many drug offenses to the list of federal crimes.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is among those who say the country has too many people in jail.
Justice Kennedy also says prison terms are often too long. He criticizes policies where state legislatures establish sentences that judges cannot change. Such required sentences have increased in number in recent years. Mister Kennedy says these sentences are sometimes severe and unjust.
Americans are guaranteed "equal justice before the law," in the words of the Constitution. But there is debate about the equality of the criminal justice system toward the poor and especially members of minority groups.
About twelve percent of African American males between the ages of twenty and thirty-four were in prison or jail last year. By comparison, four percent of Hispanics, and less than two percent of white males, were behind bars.
Bureau of Justice Statistics official Allen Beck says the rate for young black males has been going up in recent years. Mister Beck says the bureau’s new report shows the highest rate measured.
In any case, men of all groups are about fifteen times more likely than women to go to prison. But an increasing number of women are jailed these days. The number of female prisoners grows at an average rate of more than five percent a year. The rate among males averages less than four percent.
Drug offenders are a major reason for America’s huge prisoner population. The Sentencing Project is an activist group for criminal-justice improvements. It says about sixty percent of federal and more than twenty percent of state prisoners are in for drug crimes.
Recently a number of states have taken steps to change their drug policies. They are considering sending drug users to treatment programs instead of prison. These programs are aimed at ending the use of drugs. They also are meant to reduce the number of people in prison.
Arizona and California have approved drug-treatment centers for non-dangerous drug offenders. Kansas also is considering a new drug law. It would require non-violent drug offenders to be treated for up to eighteen months. Supporters of the law say it would remove the need for almost two-hundred prison beds by the end of next year.
New York State has some of the nation’s most severe drug laws. A person can be sentenced to at least fifteen years, and up to life, in prison for having or selling drugs
The international organization Human Rights Watch is based in New York. It criticizes the state's drug laws. It says these laws have led to the unnecessary jailing of non-dangerous drug offenders. It says the laws have taken parents away from thousands of children. Governor George Pataki has been considering changes in the state's drug laws.
Reducing sentences for crimes would surely lower America’s rate of imprisonment. So would keeping nonviolent, first-time drug offenders out of jail. But many officials say reduced sentences would lead to an increase in crime. They say the public would be in danger.
Experts argue about how much drug treatment programs cost as compared with jailing. Some say treatment is far cheaper. Others disagree.
Nola Foulston is a local law enforcement official in the Wichita, Kansas, area. She also is an official of the National District Attorneys Association. Mizz Foulston says she believes the yearly operation of drug treatment centers could cost a little less than jail. But she worries about drug offenders living free. Mizz Foulston says they have much higher risk of returning to drugs than if they are behind bars.
Some stories do end happily. Bob is fifty-five years old. He took cocaine for more than twenty years. During that time he served three jail terms. Each time he left jail he quickly became dependent on the drug again.
Several years ago, a judge ordered Bob to enter a drug-treatment center. Center workers closely supervised his every move for a year. He received intensive treatment and advising about his life.
Bob has a job now. He also is studying at night at a local college. He says, “No more drugs -- ever … and I am never going back to jail.”
This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. It was produced by Cynthia Kirk. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Phoebe Zimmermann. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on our VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.