Why are so many Americans in prison?

Few Americans are aware of these gruesome statistics

• One of every 100 American adults is in jail or in prison.

• At beginning of this year, 2,319,259 American adults were incarcerated.

• That total included 905,600 African-Americans in federal prisons or in state or local jails. In some states, incarceration rates for blacks were 10 times the rates for whites.

• The states spent $49 million in 2007 for corrections, up from $11 million 20 years ago.


• The increase for prison costs was six times greater than the increase for spending on higher education.

• In spite of these expenditures, there has been no noticeable effect on recidivism or crime rates.

Those figures are based on a report by the Pew Center on the States. Similar figures have been released by the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to a New York Times editorial, "The key, as some states are learning, is getting smarter about distinguishing between violent criminals and dangerous repeat offenders, who need a prison cell, and low-risk offenders, who can be handled with effective community supervision, electronic monitoring, and mandatory drug treatment programs, combined in some cases with shorter sentences."

The Times reports that some states have found ways to reduce their prison populations. They use lesser punishments for minor parole and probation violations and have expanded treatment and diversion programs.

The U.S. leads the world in the percentage of people incarcerated. China —- with a 2007 population of 1,321,851,888 —- has 1,500,000 people behind bars.

That is less than 65 percent of the number imprisoned in the U.S., despite the fact that China has four times as many people.

Many counties face similar problems. Olmsted County Sheriff Steve Borchardt has studied the issue extensively and has served for four years as chairman of the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.


The stated purpose of the commission is "to establish rational and consistent sentencing standards which reduce disparity and ensure that the sanctions following conviction of a felony are proportional to the severity of the offense of conviction and the extent of the offender’s criminal history."

Borchardt said the county jail is full and —- partly as a result of the increase in county population —- additional jail space will be needed in the future.

Occasionally on weekends, the jail population is such that it is necessary to rent jail space in other counties for Olmsted County offenders. However, he said that Minnesota has been one of the leading states in seeking to avoid excessive sentencing and Olmsted County has followed similar policies.

He also notes that in recent years gangs selling crack cocaine and methamphetamine have been responsible for a significant percentage of serious crimes. In some communities, a very small percentage of criminals have been responsible for a major share of the crimes. Offenders of this type do not qualify for special treatment that might be considered for those committing relatively minor offenses.

Winona County Attorney Charles E. MacLean also has issued a forceful statement denying that Minnesota is one of the states that sentences offenders to excessive prison terms. He points out that Minnesota has the second lowest incarceration rate among the 50 states. It has 176 inmates per 100,000 population.

That compares with 683 inmates per 100,000 population in Texas, which has the highest rate.

MacLean says that, in fact, the Legislature has passed legislation which is too lenient and allows too many convicted criminals to be released too soon. He said that the state’s leaders "have a clear obligation to provide enough prison bed spaces for those who should be in State prison."

The national statistics on jail and prison populations in the U.S. and the rest of the world are remarkably different, even though Minnesota and some other states have sought to avoid policies which result in excessively punitive sentences.


It appears that an in-depth international study is needed to determine why the U.S. jail and prison populations are so much greater, as a percentage of the overall population, than those of any other country.

Boyne is a retired publisher and editor of the Post-Bulletin. His column appears weekly.

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