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How to Cut the Prison Population, Save Billions of Dollars & Keep America Safe

Maureen Meehan

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We have a prison problem in this country, and we need to talk about it. We have way too many people behind bars in general and, in particular, for low-level offenses.

The Brennan Center for Justice recently did an authoritative look at what it concluded to be “unnecessary incarceration” and then came up with some suggestions.

The new report, recently brought to light by the Washington Post, contains the entire lowdown on the country’s totally skewed prison situation, and it’s not a pretty picture.

It focuses on the evils of imprisoning people for low-level offenses and keeping them jailed for years—ruining hundreds of thousands of lives, wasting billions of dollars and ultimately having little effect on public safety.

To put the issue in context, here are some quick facts on mass incarceration in the U.S., courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative: the U.S. is comprised of 5 percent of the world’s 7.4 billion people, yet we have nearly one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. We have about 2.3 million people behind bars, giving us the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

But the Brennan Center’s report focuses on what the authors believe are the prisoners who should not be in prison. Some 364,000 people are doing time for low-level offenses, such as drug possession and minor burglaries. In other words, 25 percent of the current prison population is comprised of low-level offenders.

The Brennan Center’s suggestions for cutting our unwieldy prison population start with releasing these low-level offenders by using such alternatives as probation, drug treatment or community service. While this all sounds familiar, these solutions are only infrequently utilized.

Naturally, the study takes into account a number of factors regarding the crimes:  seriousness, whether a victim was affected (as in burglary), the perpetrator’s state of mind (whether pre-meditated or not) and the risk of recidivism.

“Among these lower-level offenses were crimes that did not result in serious harm to a victim or substantial destruction of property, for which malicious intent may not have been present, and/or for which prison was not effective at reducing recidivism,” the authors explained.

The authors point to the 66,000 people serving prison time for simple drug possession; 70,000 for minor theft and other property crimes; and tens of thousands serving time for other offenses like prostitution, gambling and first-time DUI.

The report also looked at the idea of shortening sentences of people serving time for some violent crimes. This is based on research showing that, for certain crimes, longer sentences don’t act as deterrents nor provide rehabilitation.

In fact, wrote the Washington Post, many studies have shown that longer prison stays increases the inmate’s likelihood of reoffending.

To that end, the Brennan Center researchers also recommend reducing prison sentences by 25 percent for a number of serious crimes, including robbery, major drug trafficking and murder.

And, since crime in mostly committed by young people, why are prisons holding elderly prisoners?

Regardless, if all those simply incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses were released, the current prison population would instantly drop by 25 percent.

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