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America imprisons over a million nonviolent offenders

Nonviolent prisoners increasing faster than violent prisoners

Washington, DC - Coming just a week after the Justice Department announced that 1.8 million Americans were behind bars, a new report by the Justice Policy Institute has found that, for the first time, over one million nonviolent offenders were incarcerated in America in 1998.

"Prisons are built and mandatory sentencing laws passed on the specter of Willie Horton," stated Vincent Schiraldi, the Institute's Director; "But increasingly, those prisons are filled with the 'gang that couldn't shoot straight'."

Entitled America's One Million Nonviolent Prisoners, the JPI analysis of recent United States Justice Department data showed that over the past 20 years, the nonviolent prisoner population has increased at a rate much faster than the violent prisoner population, and that 77% of the people entering prisons and jails were sentenced for nonviolent offenses. Since 1978, the number of violent prisoners entering America's prisons doubled, the number of nonviolent prisoners tripled, and the number of persons imprisoned for drug offenses increased eight-fold.

The report, co-authored by John Irwin, professor emeritus from San Francisco State University, and Jason Ziedenberg, JPI Policy Analyst, also catalogued the tremendous costs of imprisoning over a million nonviolent offenders. The $24 billion spent last year by federal, state and local units of government to incarcerate 1.2 million nonviolent offenders was almost 50% larger than the entire federal welfare budget ($16.6 billion) which provides income supports for 8.5 million people, and represents six times what the federal government will spend on child care for 1.25 million children. Further, America is spending more building prisons ($2.6 billion) than universities ($2.5 billion). Overall, the combined expenditures for America's prisons and jails have increased from $5 billion in 1978 to $31 billion in 1997.

"Spending more to lock up nonviolent offenders than to feed or educate our country's children is a cruel, self-fulfilling prophecy," stated JPI Policy Analyst Jason Ziedenberg. "It's not just bad public policy, but it's downright mean-spirited."

The study also found that the overwhelming majority of male jail inmates are not incarcerated for a violent offense (82.4%) and have no violent offense history (64%). That is even truer for America's fastest growing inmate population­­women. Eighty-five percent of female jail inmates are incarcerated for a nonviolent offense, and 83.1% of female jail inmates have no violent prior offenses. The research corroborated the findings of other studies which have found that African Americans are imprisoned at 8 times the rate of whites, and Hispanics are imprisoned at 3 times the rate of whites. In the 1930s, 75% of the people entering prison were white (reflecting the general demographics of the nation). Today, minority communities represent 70% of all new prison admissions.

The study also found:

America's nonviolent prisoner population exceeds the combined general population of Alaska and Wyoming.

America's nonviolent prisoner population is three times the violent and nonviolent prisoner populations of the entire European Union. Those nations have a combined general population of 370 million people, compared to America's population of 274 million.

America's 1.2 million nonviolent prisoners is five times the number of people held in India's entire prison system, even though India is a country with roughly four times our population.

The growth of America's prison system has become so large that it has spawned numerous family support and advocacy groups which were unthinkable 20 years ago. For example, this study comes a day before scores of people whose family members are incarcerated for nonviolent crimes will convene in Washington for a national gathering of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

"The scale of this problem has become truly massive, with populations the size of several states now behind bars" said Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "But each one of them is an individual human being, who has left behind a family and loved ones. The statistics are merely a backdrop to their continuing loss."

From April 11 - 18, a newly created organization called Critical Resistance is preparing a series of prison visitations at institutions around the country to highlight the overuse of incarceration. "Between mandatory minimums and increasing construction, we are on a collision course with our children's future," stated Ellen Barry of Critical Resistance. "It is time for us to focus more on improving our system of education than expanding our prison industry."

The Justice Policy Institute is a Project of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice * 202/678-9282

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