Prison Population Sees 1st Drop In Almost 40 Years

The number of Americans living under the correctional system fell to 1.6 million in 2010, according to recent government data. Host Michel Martin discusses the decline and efforts to reform the system with former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're going to spend some time today talking about what might be a surprising trend in criminal justice. The number of Americans in the correctional system is dropping. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently reported a 1.3 percent overall decline in the number of people under court supervision in 2010. That's the latest count available. There was also a drop in the number of those in prison down 0.6 percent to 1.6 million. That's the first decline for that group in nearly four decades. So, what's happened?

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon Adam Gelb. He is director of the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center on the States. That group has analyzed this information. Adam, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ADAM GELB: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us, Dick Thornburgh. He is the former attorney general of the United States. He served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, although all told he served in the justice department under five presidents, including a stint as U.S. attorney. He also served as governor of Pennsylvania. He's also spoken out about the need to reexamine criminal justice policy from a conservative perspective. Welcome to you, sir. Thank you so much for joining us as well.

DICK THORNBURGH: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: I also wanted to mention that later in the program we will speak with a woman has an interesting idea about how to prepare men for life after incarceration. It involves teaching them to make little hats and dolls for kids. We'll tell you more a little later in the program.

But, Adam Gelb, I'm going to start with you. As we mentioned, the number of offenders under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3 percent to about seven million people. That was the second consecutive year of decline. What's accounted for this drop and do you think that this is significant?

GELB: Well, it is significant, Michel. It's been rising as you said for almost four decades now. But there's a narrative out there that says that states are recklessly rushing into to doing this because their budgets are so tight and they just have to save money and they're just doing this public safety be damned. The truth, as we are learning from our extensive work out in the states, is quite the opposite. They're doing this because of public safety and because policymakers are realizing that there are more effective and less expensive ways to deal with offenders, particularly non-violent offenders.

MARTIN: Governor, that brings me to you, that's one of the reasons we called you obviously is that you've served at the highest levels of government in the criminal justice area, but also you've been a person who's had to stand for election yourself. And, you know, make your case to the people about some of these issues. So, I wanted to ask you, what's your take on the decline? And have your own views about the cost and benefits of incarceration evolved?

THORNBURGH: Well, let's talk a little bit about budget because that's a consuming interest in good times and bad of governors of all states. And to a certain extent what this debate is about or what this movement is about is about making the maximum use of available resources and more and more we're beginning to look at the criminal justice process as one that doesn't depend upon stiffer and longer sentences, but one that makes sentences more certain that ramps up the deterrent capability of the law.

And that means more and better police, more strategically utilized so that there's a real opportunity to have those bent on criminal conduct to rethink that conduct in view of what the consequences might be. So, to a certain extent, yes and no. It's budget driven, but really I think we're really looking at it a sea change and thinking about the criminal justice policy.

MARTIN: Well, governor, to what do you attribute that change in thinking because you can see an argument - and this is not exclusively a right left issue...

THORNBURGH: No.

MARTIN: ...because there's certain many people on the left or for example former Governor Mario Cuomo served as three terms of governor of New York was a famous opponent of the death penalty. But he also is kind of his argument to the public for why that made sense, also used to brag about how many prison cells he had built. So, what do you attribute this change in thinking to?

THORNBURGH: Governors are results oriented, and the system isn't working. We have more people in prison than any other country in the world. We have instituted all kinds of what we call tough sentencing regimens, three strikes and out and the like, and it isn't working. We're not seeing the kind of wholesale reductions in criminal activity that we had hoped would be there. So, I think that this rethinking, looking at, as I mentioned, the certainty of punishment rather than the length of punishment is a real deterrent is what we're grappling with now.

MARTIN: We're talking about the decline in the number of people under correctional supervision. We're speaking with former Attorney General of the United States Richard Thornburgh. He's also a former governor of Pennsylvania. Also with us, Adam Gelb, who analyzes public safety policy for the Pew Center on the States.

Adam Gelb, what about that? And I just want to point out one other interesting finding. For the first time, the number of people released from prison exceeded the number of people sentenced to prison, close to 709,000 people were released while almost 704,000 were sentenced. So, what's your take on what's spurring the rethinking?

GELB: Well, I think the attorney general had it just right. This is not about just saving money or don't have state policymakers out there sort of holding their noses and saying we've got to do this to save money. What's happening is that they're realizing that we know so much more today than we did 25, 30 years ago about what actually works to stop that revolving door.

There have been advances in supervision technology for instance. We have GPS monitors that can tell us where offenders are and what they're doing out in the community that just obviously didn't exist 25, 30 years ago when we got started down this prison building path. We learned a lot more about what treatment works. We don't just sit around in a circle and talk about problems. There are cognitive behavioral therapies that teach offenders how to deal with the situations that they find themselves in and how to get out of and avoid those situations.

And we have much more accurate risk assessments that help the courts and probation parole officials distinguish between who's really high risk and who needs to be locked up and supervised intensively and who are folks at the other end of the spectrum who can be dealt with in a much cheaper but still effective and accountable way.

MARTIN: And, governor, does the public buy that? I know that it's been a while since you have had to run for office or you've chosen to run for office, but do you think that the public buys that? That, you know, we're smarter now. The argument about it is it's better to be smart on crime than tough on crime.

THORNBURGH: There's a curious political calculus involved here, Michel. And I think it's important to recognize what effect this has. What we're proposing, I think, in the way of reform is some additional expenditures in certain areas while the costs of imprisonment are going to go down as you have fewer and fewer people behind bars. That has to be accompanied by an increase in funding for things like education. While people - many people are semi-literate or illiterate in prison and cannot work when they're outside.

Vocational education behind the bars, drug treatment behind the bars, these are things that we emphasized at the federal level when I was attorney general. But they cost money. And so that ideally you're talking about the savings from reducing the number of people in prison being allocated dollar for dollar into these kinds of helpful correctional measures, but recognize that that's a very politically dicey situation.

I think folks are going to look for savings more than anything else and they're going to scratch their heads and wonder: My goodness, all these educational, vocational and drug treatment facilities are being made available where people have violated the law. I have law-abiding kids and relatives who could use that, too. Why are we doing this solely for ex-offenders? Tough question and it's going to take some courage to stand up to that kind of a query.

MARTIN: Can we talk about race to in the few minutes that we have left? This is an issue that interestingly enough surfaced in the Republican debate over the weekend, where Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, was asked about these newsletters that had some comments about blacks that many people found offensive over the weekend. And he said: You know what, if you really want to talk about what's, you know, a problem for people of color or blacks and Latinos, let's talk about the criminal justice system.

And his argument - and he pointed out where his facts were accurate - is that 3.1 percent of black males in the nation were in state or federal prison, compared with just under .5 percent of white males and 1.3 percent of Hispanic males. And he argued that the so-called war on drugs is, in part, what is responsible for this and he argued that the impact on blacks of incarceration is so profound that this ought to be the focus of concern for people who care about the African-American community.

So Governor Thornburgh and Adam, obviously I want to hear from you on this question, too. I mean, do you think that that's part of it? Do you think that the impact of this extensive incarceration has come to the surface as being part of what has to be the calculus? Or is that not it at all?

THORNBURGH: Well, I think, obviously, our aspiration is to have a criminal justice system that is color blind and blind to any other kind of artificial differential that may exist among our citizens. On the other hand, the impact is oftentimes, as the congressman points out, disproportionately upon minorities, upon people of color and the like. And I think that's a social policy goal that we have to address through better education, more effective drug treatment and more job opportunities. It's not a package, necessarily, but it's a cause and effect factor that can't be overlooked.

MARTIN: Adam, what about you? What's your take on this?

GELB: I think that state policymakers are primarily after more public safety at less cost and they realize that better public safety policies will improve safety in minority neighborhoods and have that impact. But the larger point is that the public as a whole here is very supportive of this kind of measure. Polls that we've done and others show two-thirds, three-quarters majorities in support of shifting resources, as Mr. Thornburgh described, from expensive prison cells for lower-risk offenders into more effective, stronger community corrections programs.

And so people are just sick and tired after 20, 25 years of ever expanding prison costs and prison budgets and looking for more effective, less expensive ways to produce safety.

MARTIN: And Governor Thornburgh, I'm going to give you the last word on it. Do you think that that's true? Do you think that the public has bought in?

THORNBURGH: I don't think so. I think the public is skeptical, but I think it's up to leadership at all levels of government to deliver this message loud and clear. What we have right now is simply not working. It's not effective, it's not efficient. It's not in the best interests of the broad spectrum of society and if that leadership's forthcoming and the kind of bumper sticker policymaking that's gone on in the years past is abandoned, then we'll see some real improvement.

MARTIN: Dick Thornburgh is a former attorney general of the United States. He served during the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He's also a former governor of Pennsylvania. He's now in private practice here in Washington, D.C. at K&L Gates, LLP. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Governor, thank you so much for joining us.

THORNBURGH: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: With us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, Adam Gelb. He is director of the public safety performance project for the Pew Center. Adam, thank you so much for joining us.

GELB: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, there's a waiting list to join this class at one Maryland prison, but can learning to knit sweaters, hats and dolls help transform the lives of former inmates after they leave prison?

LYNN ZWERLING: Someone who knits is not going to be violent. For a man to cross over that border and to join a knitting group, he's already identified himself as someone who's open, who's ready for change.

MARTIN: A look at the benefits of Knitting Behind Bars. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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