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August 29, 2004 - The Spokesman-Review (WA)

Campaigns Ignore Crime, Punishment

The Human And Fiscal Costs Of Supervising 7 Million People Merit Attention

By Vincent Schiraldi and Eric Lotke, Knight Ridder

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It is more than a little ironic that with the number of Americans under the control of the criminal justice system higher than at any time in history, crime and punishment have virtually vanished as an issue in this year's presidential race.

The staggering size of America's prison population and its human and fiscal costs demand far more serious examination than they have received so far.

Unless something changes, one in 15 Americans born in 2001 (today's 3-year-olds) are expected to spend at least a year of their lives in prison. Nearly 7 million Americans live under correctional supervision, more people than live in our eight least populous states combined. Organized differently, they would have 16 votes in the U.S. Senate.

A focused look at the 17 "swing states" in the upcoming election reveals just how profound an impact prison expansion has had. Between 1993 and 2002, the swing states experienced a collective growth in their prisons and jails of 204,807 people, nearly a 40 percent increase in their incarceration rates in just 10 years.

This rapid rate of increase comes with significant costs, robbing from other government functions and disenfranchising millions of potential voters. Between 1977 and 2001, combined state and local spending on corrections increased 12-fold (1,101 percent), more than double the growth of health care (482 percent). Between 1985 and 2002, the swing states alone increased their spending on corrections more than five times as fast as their spending on higher education (220 percent vs. 39 percent).

Politicians claim that prisons bring safety but the data show otherwise. Crime declined nationally during the 1990s, primarily the result of a booming economy and factors other than prison growth. Between 1993 and 2002, states leaning Republican grew their prison populations nearly twice as much as states leaning Democrat. Yet crime in the "D" states dropped at twice the rate of the "R" states.

Paired swing states show how the tenuous connection between prison and safety can be. The prison population of Pennsylvania grew more than twice as much as Ohio's between 1993 and 2002, yet they experienced similar declines in crime.

Midwest swing states Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin all had respectable declines in crime yet Wisconsin's incarceration rate rose by 96 percent compared to more modest growth in Michigan (23 percent) and Minnesota (40 percent).

To the west, Oregon and Washington experienced similar declines in crime even though Washington's incarceration rate increased half as much as Oregon's. West Virginia had the swing states' largest growth in incarceration and lowest decline in crime.

The people most punished by America's penal system have the least say where decisions are made. One in 10 black men in his 20s or 30s wakes up behind bars every morning, and nearly twice as many black men will have been to prison by their early 30s as will have obtained a bachelor's degree. Yet of the 4.7 million Americans barred from voting due to felony disenfranchisement laws, 1.4 million are African-American men.

The number of disenfranchised voters exceeded the margin of victory in nine swing states in the 2000 presidential election. In Florida, the 827,207 disenfranchised exceeded George W. Bush's 537-vote margin 1,500-fold; in New Mexico, there were 214 times as many disenfranchised voters as Al Gore's 2000 margin of victory.

Fortunately, some swing states are leading the way with bipartisan, promising approaches to curbing prison growth.

Ohio officials reduced sentence lengths for nonviolent offenses, increased sentences for violent offenses, and reformed parole practices, leading to a 2,000-person decline in the prison population and closure of a prison.

Michigan legislators revised their state's harsh mandatory sentencing laws, saving the state an estimated $41 million last year. And Washington officials shortened sentences for people convicted of drug and nonviolent offenses and used the prison savings to fund community-based treatment.

Such reforms lack the primitive appeal of a Willie Horton ad. But with nearly 5 million people unable to vote in the upcoming election because of their criminal justice status, and the U.S. holding the dubious distinction of the world's highest incarceration rate, voters need to hear more than silence on this important issue.

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