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April 26, 2005 - The Ledger-Enquirer (GA)

Crime Still Paying Well

By Kaffie Sledge

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

We should not be surprised at the Justice Department's newly released data which show the prison and jail population is on the rise:

As of June 30, 2004, the nation's jails and prisons held 2.131 million inmates -- an increase of 2.3 percent from the previous year.

John Cole Vodicka says the figures are disturbing. Approximately 51,000 rural southwest Georgians are in a prison cell, a jail cell or on felony parole or felony probation. "These figures continue to rise," he says. "We, as a nation, have not come to grips with the fact that we are becoming a nation of the keepers and the kept. For the most part, the people we see in the rural counties are troubled people. I'm not trying to excuse offensive behavior, but many of them are mentally ill. Our jails are becoming dumping grounds for people with mental health problems. Our jails are becoming receptacles for people who are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs; who are illiterate; who are at this time in their lives unemployable."

Cole Vodicka is director of the Prison & Jail Project, a watchdog organization in Americus, Ga.

Figures from The Sentencing Project, an independent, nonprofit organization, outline who are incarcerated:

  • More than 283,000 people with mental illnesses.
  • More than 453,000 drug offenders; in the federal system more than one-third are low-level offenders; 58 percent of state drug prisoners have no history of violence or high-level drug activity.
  • A rapidly increasing female population: up eight-fold from 12,300 in 1980 to 103,310 in 2004. In 2003, 38 percent of the women in jail and prison were African-American and 17 percent Latina.
  • An estimated 121,000 inmates older than 50 in state and federal prisons, more than doubling from 1992-2002.

"Crime rates have dropped fairly consistently over the last 12 years, which should mean there are fewer candidates for jail and prison sentences. Yet the overall number of people behind American bars keeps going up, and this country remains the world's leader in incarceration," says Malcolm Young, executive director of The Sentencing Project, which works toward a fair and effective criminal justice system. The Sentencing Project is based in Washington, D.C.

Cole Vodicka says our judicial system shoves people out of sight and out of mind.

"And some of these folks are getting some pretty significant amounts of prison time. When they appear and reappear in a courtroom, there is a level of frustration and anger coming from judges and prosecutors," he says.

Young says, "Reliance on incarceration without adequate attention to other factors is expensive and may be misdirected. A conservative estimate of the average cost of locking up one person for one year is $22,000. Last year's increase of 48,452 inmates carries a price tag of $1.066 billion -- public monies not available for education, drug treatment, mental health, and other community-building services."

Were there alternatives in our communities, a number of people would probably not have to go to prison, Cole Vodicka says.

"The really worrisome thing is that in the last two or three decades we have seen that prison population number jump from 300,000 to 2.3 million," Cole Vodicka says.

"In that time we have created an industry that needs -- that relies on -- people being caged. And we are feeding that industry whether we are doing it knowingly or not. We have become beholden to corporations who are building prisons and operating prisons. Architects and contractors and state agencies need people in prison and jail cells to survive, or to make a profit."

Cole Vodicka says he hopes we will one day change our minds about who we incarcerate and why. But that won't alleviate our problems. "In our communities and in our societies," he says, "we will still have this industry that will be demanding that we feed them bodies to fill up the cages."

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