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May 3, 2005 - The Denver Post (CO)

Editorial: U.S. Jails, Prisons Overflowing

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The figure is nothing short of staggering: 2.1 million U.S. residents - - one in every 138 - locked up as of mid-2004. That's nearly as many people as live in the entire Denver metro area.

The tally is 700,000 more than in 1990, and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 900 more prisoners are added weekly, even as crime rates fall. The U.S. incarceration rate of 726 per 100,000 population is in a different league than most other nations. Only Russia, with 606 per 100,000, for a total of 865,000 prisoners, is close to the U.S. among major industrial nations. In Britain, it's 142 per 100,000, China 118, France 91 and Japan 58.

It isn't cheap, either. Prisons cost U.S. taxpayers about $49 billion a year. Get-tough policies from the 1980s and early 1990s, such as mandatory drug sentences and "three-strikes" life terms, have filled U.S. prisons and jails. Denverites vote today on a $378 million jail and court complex.

Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, told The Associated Press he favors alternative programs, such as drug treatment and help for the mentally ill, to reduce the numbers of offenders incarcerated for non-violent crimes and low-level drug offenses.

Local political leaders are grappling with alternatives to jail crowding. Denver already spends about $14.6 million a year on sentencing alternatives and diversion programs and still needs more jail space.

Denver pays about $52.75 a day, or $19,334 a year, to confine one person. Electronic monitoring, including a set-up cost of $75, costs only $18 a day, or $6,645 yearly. The Colorado Department of Corrections pays $70 a day, or $25,550 a year, for each inmate in a state prison and $49 a day, or $17,885 a year, for those in contract prisons.

"The conventional wisdom seems to be to put the money in at the front end," said Joe Sandoval, professor of criminal justice at Metropolitan State College. "Give folks an opportunity to earn a living honestly and to become educated and to have a stake in American society. You have to ( do that ) at an early age, and that way the chances of aberrant behavior later on will decrease."

That's "extremely difficult" to do, Sandoval said, and so is getting adequate funding for such programs.

In Colorado, only one in four drug offenders is sentenced to prison, said DOC spokeswoman Alison Morgan. "By the time they hit the Department of Corrections, those individuals have earned their way there." It's also a mistake to assume all drug offenders are non-violent, she said.

Educational, vocational, drug, alcohol, anger management and mental health programs are "only part of the answer," Morgan said. "Early intervention ... would be critical."

The first priority, according to Morgan, is public safety. We agree.

But legislators should revisit sentencing and drug laws. Should some aspects of drug use be approached as health problems rather than crimes? Is it wise to spend $1.25 million to keep a 25-year-old stickup artist locked up until he turns 75? Changing antisocial behavior is a worthier, albeit more difficult, goal.

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