Sustained Outrage

A primer in reducing prison populations

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A new report by the The Sentencing Project offers four examples of states that have reduced their prison populations significantly over the last decade, even as the overall number of people in state prisons has grown nationally by 12 percent.

Between 1999 and 2009, New York and New Jersey have reduced their state inmates by 20 and 19 percent, respectively. Kansas has cut its prisoners by five percent in six years, while Michigan experienced a 12 percent drop between 2006 and 2009.

As I’ve noted before, the challenging economy has certainly forced cash-strapped states to look for ways to save money, and incarceration is very expensive. But the reductions highlighted by this report may reflect changing attitudes towards sentencing, authors Judith Greene and Marc Mauer note.

As states around the nation grapple with the effects of the fiscal crisis a major area of attention has been the cost of corrections. Over the past 25 years the four-fold rise in the prison population has caused corrections expenditures to escalate dramatically. These increased costs now compete directly with higher education and other vital services within a climate of declining state revenues.

Even prior to the onset of the latest fiscal crisis, though, legislators in many states had become increasingly interested in adopting evidence-based policies directed at producing more effective public safety outcomes. In contrast to the “get tough” climate that had dominated criminal justice policy development for many years, this new political environment has focused on issues such as diversion of people charged with lower-level drug offenses, developing graduated sanctions for people on probation and parole who break the rules, and enhancing reentry strategies.

Despite these developments, prison populations have continued to rise in the past decade, albeit not as dramatically as in the preceding decades. From 2000-2008 the number of people incarcerated in state prisons rose by 12 percent from 1,176,269 to 1,320,145, although with a broad variation around the nation. At the high end, six states expanded their prison populations by more than 40 percent – West Virginia (57 percent), Minnesota (51 percent), Arizona (49 percent), Kentucky (45 percent), Florida (44 percent), and Indiana (41 percent).

By the end of this period, growth in state prisons appeared to have largely stabilized. In 2008, the national total remained steady, and 20 states experienced a modest reduction in their populations that year.

While a growing trend towards stability may be emerging, this development needs to be assessed in context. Even if there should be a leveling of population growth, that would still leave prison populations at historic highs that are unprecedented in American history or that of any other democratic nation. The consequences of such a situation for fiscal spending, public safety prospects, and impact on communities is very troubling.

That’s right, folks, while the number of prisoners was shrinking in some states, West Virginia led the nation in growth of prisoner population. Does anyone really believe that there was a 57 percent jump in the number of crimes committed here over the last decade?

I’ve listed some of the successful methods in reducing the number of inmates listed in the report after the jump.

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Rural drug use: deadly, and getting deadlier

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The Senate Judiciary Committee hit the road today to hold a hearing on drug-related crime in rural areas in Chairman Patrick Leahy‘s home state of Vermont. There was some pretty compelling testimony, which I’ve excerpted and linked to below.

First, from R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who noted that in 2006, the last year data was available, “drug-induced deaths surpassed gun-shot wounds and now rank second only to motor vehicle crashes as a cause of injury deaths in our country.” He continued:

In 2008, Americans living in rural areas used illicit drugs at lower overall levels of current use (approximately 6 percent) than their counterparts in suburban and metropolitan areas (8-9 percent). Rural Americans also show lower rates of diagnosable drug abuse and dependence. However, closer inspection of the data reveals some concerns about rural drug use.

Youth in rural America show higher rates of use, particularly for methamphetamines, prescription pain killers and alcohol. Data show that 2.9 percent of young adults, ages 18 to 25, use methamphetamine in the most rural areas. That rate is nearly double the 1.5 percent of young adults using meth in urban areas. This pattern is similar for OxyContin, with 2.8 percent of young adults in the most rural areas abusing these drugs, compared to 1.7 percent of urban young adults. The latest data also show that youth in the smallest rural areas binge drink at higher rates than their peers in suburban and metropolitan areas. Additionally, children aged 12 to 17 from the most rural areas are more likely to have used alcohol, engaged in heavy drinking and driven under the influence. These differences are significant and pose unique challenges in rural communities.

One of the most alarming issues in rural areas is the rate of overdose deaths. Rural communities have experienced significant increases in overdose death rates, rapidly outpacing the rate increases in urban and suburban communities. These deaths are largely attributed to the rise in misuse of prescription painkillers. The latest study available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examining data from 1999-2004 shows that overdose death rates in predominantly rural states are higher than in more metropolitan states. Vermont, Maine and West Virginia all experienced significant increases in overdose death rates during this time: 164 percent, 210 percent and 550 percent respectively.

Col. Thomas L’Esperance, director of the Vermont State Police, described how Vermont uses drug task forces drawing from various law enforcement agencies, an approach that is also used in West Virginia.

Several years of wide spread focus using this strategy resulted in substantial drops in heroin arrests and for a period of time the demand for the drug subsided. Although we made great strides against heroin we know now that the powerful pain medication oxycodone, commonly found in the prescription drug OxyContin, quickly moved in to take its place on the street. The diversion of prescription narcotics is one of the greatest challenges we now face in Vermont. OxyContin has become as widespread and available as heroin or crack cocaine. With the increase in demand for narcotics such as OxyContin we are also seeing a spike in the number of heroin cases state wide. In the past 16 months there has been a 115% increase in the number of heroin cases conducted by the Drug Task Force. This can be attributed in part to the increase in OxyContin addictions in the state and the fact that comparatively the street value of a bag of heroin is generally less than half the value of one 80mg OxyContin pill.

His description of how heroin is undergoing a bit of a resurgence, particularly as an alternative for oxycodone users, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

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State prison population shrinks, but not in W.Va.

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A new study published this week by the Pew Center on the States notes that for the first time in almost 40 years, the overall number of people in state prisons in America has gone down. Since 1972, the prison population has exploded, increasing by 705 percent from 174,379 total state inmates nationally to 1,408,830 in on Dec. 31, 2008. (These figures do not include people serving sentences in federal facilities, only state prisons.)

By January 2010, the overall number shrank by 5,739 inmates, or 0.4 percent. Why the sudden change of direction? One reason, the study notes, could be that cash-strapped states are looking for ways to save money, and reducing the number of prisoners has a positive effect on the bottom line. But it’s too soon to conclude that a corner has been turned, the study cautions.

After nearly four decades of uninterrupted growth, an annual drop in the state prison population is worthy of note, no matter the scale of decline. However, it is too soon to say whether the 2009 decline will be a temporary blip or the beginning of a sustained downward trend.

It is possible that this narrow decline is simply seasonal and may adjust upward in the first half of 2010. The nation’s prison population can experience seasonal patterns, with growth tending to be clustered in the first half of the calendar year. The decline in 2009 could be part of a seasonal downward adjustment and an increase in the first six months of 2010 could eliminate the 5,739-person drop. With a decline this narrow, when the population is measured may affect the outcome.

Sadly, West Virginia was not a part of the national decline. Our prison population jumped 5.1 percent over the last year, growing by 308 prisoners. (That’s a pretty small number, but percentage-wise, only Indiana, at 5.3 percent, grew faster.) And this increase came at a time when Gov. Joe Manchin launched a gubernatorial commission on prison overcrowding.

As my colleague Alison Knezevich reported last week, at Manchin’s request, lawmakers passed legislation during the last session that would speed up parole for non-violent inmates. Del. Tim Miley (D-Harrison), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, estimated that the bill could affect 700 prisoners. The bill passed both houses and is currently awaiting the governor’s signature.

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One in 68

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That’s the number of adult West Virginians under correctional control: in prison, or in jail, or on parole or on probation.

The good news is that number is low, relatively speaking, compared to the national average, which is one in 31. It is also low compared to neighboring states: Kentucky (one in 35), Maryland (one in 27), Ohio (one in 25),  Pennsylvania (one in 28) and Virginia (one in 46).

But that’s still a lot, particularly when you consider that 25 years ago, the figure for West Virginia was only one in 226 adults. (Has crime really tripled over that period?)

All these figures come from a study by the Pew Center on the States that was published in March. I went back to look at this study after it was mentioned in the report submitted to Gov. Joe Manchin by the Governor’s Commission on Prison Overcrowding, and a few points bear repeating.

According to the Pew study, West Virginia spent $1

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