Egan, Timothy. "Less Crime, More Criminals." _New York Times_ 7 March 1997, Sec. 4: 1+
***** Nearly 1 of every 150 people in this country is in prison or jail, the Justice Department will announce [later this month], a figure no other democracy [sic] comes close to matching.
Soon, the total number of people locked up in Federal and state prisons and local jails will likely reach the two million mark, almost double the number a decade ago....For an American born this year, the chance of living some part of life in a correction facility is 1 in 20; for black Americans, it is 1 in 4.
...[T]he economy could hardly be better [sic], and crime has fallen steeply six years in a row. But a prison peace dividend is nowhere in sight.
...No matter how much crime plummets, the United States will still have to add the equivalent of a new 1,000-bed jail or prison every week--for perhaps another decade, Federal officials say....
A big reason is that so many of the new inmates are drug offenders. In the Federal system, nearly 60 percent of all people behind bars are doing time for drug violations; in state prisons and local jails, the figure is 22 percent. These numbers are triple the rate of 15 years ago.
Americans do not use more drugs, on average, than people in other nations; but the United States, virtually alone among Western democracies [sic], has chosen a path of incarceration for drug offenders. More than 400,000 people are behind bars for drug crimes--and nearly a third of them are locked up for simply possessing an illicit drug....[A] growing number of them have broken no laws other than the ones on drug use.
In the 1980's, Congress and the states passed drug laws that required judges to put people in prison--even first-time offenders, or those caught with small amounts of an illicit substance. Mandatory minimum sentences...leave no room for a judge to consider special circumstances, or options such as treatment instead of jail....
Beyond the laws that send drug offenders to prison with reflexive certainty, there are now institutional incentives to keep locking up more people--a trend that some people call the prison industrial complex.
The stock price of the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private jailer, has increased tenfold since 1994. The company's stock is now privately held. But Corrections Corporation has created a popular real estate investment fund to get a return on all those new prisons being built at the rate of one a week.
Unions representing prison guards are the fastest-growing public employee associations in many states. In California last year, the union was given a raise of 12 percent, which brought the salary of a seasoned prison guard up to $51,000.
It is the rare rural community that rejects a new prison in its backyard, with the prospect of permanent, high-paying, benefit-rich government jobs.
The prisons in California, as in virtually every other state, are near capacity, even though the state has built 21 new institutions in the last 15 years. Soon, it will cost nearly $4 billion a year to run the state's prison system....
"Once you have a society committed to building new prisons and keeping them, it's very difficult to close them down," said Mr. [Marc] Mauer [assistant director of the Sentencing Project]. "Particularly in rural areas that come to depend on them. It's like trying to close a military base."
The states also have an incentive to keep people in jail a long time. A federal law passed in 1994 provides matching funds to states to keep violent criminals in prison longer by denying parole. This act and other so-called truth-in-sentencing laws are reasons why the ranks of prisoners will not soon drop, even as crime levels off.
...The one thing that may finally slow prison growth, said Mr. [Allen J.] Beck [the Justice Department's lead statistician on criminal justice trends], are budget concerns. It costs taxpayers $20,000 a year to house and feed every new inmate--and that does not include the cost of building new prisons and jails. The states are spending nearly $30 billion to keep people in jail--about double the rate of 10 years ago. *****