Saturday, June 12, 2010

NAACP supports legislation to help States reduce prison populations

The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.3 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails -- a 500% increase over the past thirty years. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and state governments being overwhelmed by the burden of funding a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not the most effective means of achieving public safety. This over-reliance on incarceration has also had a disproportionately serious impact on communities of color: 57% of incarcerated inmates are racial or ethnic minorities and 88% of inmates are male. Specifically, as of mid-year 2009, whites represented 42.5% of all incarcerated inmates; African Americans, 39.2%; and Hispanics, 16.2%. These percents have remained nearly stable since midyear 2000. Furthermore, prisons aren't the only area within the criminal justice system that has seen a huge growth over the past three decades. Our society's increasing over-reliance on the criminal justice system is even more apparent when you add in the number of Americans on parole or probation: one in 31 adults in America is in prison or jail, or on probation or parole. Twenty-five years ago, the rate was 1 in 77.

In addition to the extreme human toll this is taking on our Nation, the financial costs are staggering: The National Association of State Budget Officers estimates that states spent a record $51.7 billion on corrections in FY2008, or 1 in every 15 general fund dollars. Adding local, federal and other funding brings the national correctional spending total to $68 billion. This is money that cannot be spent on education, health, transportation, or other projects that benefit society as a whole.

Clearly, we as a nation need to take some new approaches to effectively reduce the number of people we put into prison each year. We have found, however, is that incarceration reduction programs that are very successful in one state are sometimes much less so in another. The only true common factor in all 50 states right now is that they are all struggling under the weight of enormous burdens in terms of human as well as monetary resources as a result of a dysfunctional criminal justice system.

To help address the problem, Congressmen Adam Schiff (CA) and Dan Lungren (CA), along with Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (RI) and John Cornyn (TX) have introduced H.R. 4080 / S. 2772, the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Act. This legislation devotes grant funding for intensive analysis of criminal justice data, policies, and the cost-effectiveness of current spending on corrections, in order to develop data - driven policy options that can address this. The bill then provides resources for the implementation of solutions and for reinvesting averted prison costs to bolster such initiatives. The NAACP strongly supports H.R. 4080 / S. 2772, and urges its immediate enactment.

This is of particular importance here in Kansas where the Legislature's flat funding of alternatives to incarceration programs may lead to significant cuts in services and increases in recidivism. This is because while the funding for such programs remains flat, the number of people incarcerated who would qualify for these programs has increased. This is further compounded by the fact that the lagging job market makes it increasingly difficult to find stable employment for former inmates, so those who are in the programs tend to stay longer. Without adequate funding, many evidence based programs will either reduce the number of clients they serve (leading to increases in the prison and jail populations) or scale back the services and supervision they provide, which evidence suggests would lead to increased rates of recidivism.

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