Report suggests prison reforms needed

The United States jails 737 of every 100,000 people, the highest rate in the world.

Emma Carew

A major report released by the JFA Institute in Washington on Nov. 19 suggests significant reforms to the national prison system in attempt to end 30 years of exponential population growth.

According to the report, titled “Unlocking America,” there were 196,000 people in American prisons in 1972, compared to 1.4 million today.

The United States leads the world in incarceration levels, with 737 people per 100,000 currently in prison or jail. The second highest rate, in Russia, is 581 per 100,000.

Sonoski Professor of Law and Public Policy Michael Tonry said in the 1980s, Minnesota “had relatively socially healthy policies toward punishment.”

In the early 1990s, the state Legislature began passing “morally based” and “incredibly severe” laws on drug crimes, which have led to a rapid increase of Minnesota prisoners, he said.

The authors of “Unlocking America” offer four solutions to the prison population problem, one of which is the decriminalization of lesser drug-related crimes.

The report states that “a large group of people are currently serving time for behaviors that have been criminalized to protect people from themselves.”

Joshua Page, assistant professor of sociology and contributing author to “Unlocking America,” said the authors believe lower-level drug-related criminals should be diverted to treatment programs rather than prison.

“(It) isn’t about the prison system itself,” he said. “It’s about sentencing, how we sentence people, and what we do with parole violators.”

In Minnesota, about a quarter of inmates are incarcerated for drug-related crimes, Tonry said.

In the 1990s, the rising prison populations were fueled by crack and cocaine offenders. And since 2000, the popularization of methamphetamine has only added to the increasing populations.

“It’s kind of a double whammy,” Tonry said, because the state had not found a way to reduce the cocaine offenders before methamphetamine use went on the rise.

“The problem here is mindlessly severe drug penalties,” Tonry said.

Dan Storkamp, director of information and technology for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, said there are about 9,500 people in Minnesota prisons, and the population is expected to rise to about 10,000 by 2011.

The Department Of Corrections is expanding three existing facilities to address the rising prison populations. It expects to have adequate inmate space through 2015.

According to a department report on state prison populations, the state has seen an increase in probation and supervised release violators.

Storkamp said one of the ways the department is addressing this issue is through the Minnesota Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan, a program that prepares inmates to be “law-abiding and successful” after their release.

Tonry said he thinks more emphasis needs to be placed on continued treatment for inmates once they are reintroduced into the community.

Internal prison treatment programs are only effective for people who “are very quickly placed into the appropriate next stage of that level of drug treatment,” he said.

“Most people who are in prison are not there because they are exceedingly good managers of their own lives,” Tonry said. “There are chances that people who are released from prison will fall into a crack.”