In 1999, the conservative scholar John J. Dilulio published a Wall Street Journal op/ed piece on incarceration rates. Its thesis was clearly stated in the title: “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough.”
Yet for the next decade, incarceration continued to increase. The figure of two million people in jail or prison grew by another 300,000 nationally, to a total of 2.3 million. The cumulative state tab for this has more than quadrupled since 2000, from $12 billion to $52 billion.
Add in those on probation or parole and the round number is now an astonishing 7 million Americans under correctional supervision.
In today’s straightened economic circumstances, keeping so many people under correctional control is becoming less and less sustainable. The Great Recession has already had a profound impact on American life, and is likely to continue to do so for a long time. Prison beds are by no means immune to the ongoing financial pressure states are under.
Developments in the state of Indiana provide a case in point. From 2000 to 2009, Indiana’s prison population grew by 41 percent. Analysis showed that the increase was due not to more violent crime, but to an influx of drug addicts and low-level, non-violent offenders.
Indiana is now trying to turn this situation around. Governor Mitch Daniel’s proposal to give judges more discretion to tailor shorter sentences for non-violent offenders was lauded in a New York Times editorial and is supported by the Pew Center on the States.
How this sensible proposal will play out in the rough-and-tumble of a legislative session is anyone’s guess. Could it be that financial necessity will be the mother of invention? We’ll have to stay tuned as the session unfolds.