Prison Population Is Shrinking In Most States
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, thousands of protestors are expected this Sunday in Washington, D.C. to demand action on immigration from President Obama and the congressional leadership. We'll hear from one of the key organizers about why they are doing this and what they hope to accomplish. That is a little later in the program.
But first, we have news about the country's prison population. For the first time in nearly four decades, the number of people incarcerated in state prisons has gone down, according to a report being released today. We wanted to know why and why this matters, so we've called Adam Gelb, the director of the Pew Center on States Public Safety Performance Project.
He joins us from member station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia. Welcome, Adam, thanks for joining us.
Mr. ADAM GELB (Director, Public Safety Performance Project, Pew Center on the States): Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: We should mention that the prison population went down in 27 states, but the number of prisoners went up in 23 other states. So we've also called Indiana Department of Corrections Commissioner Ed Buss. His state saw the largest increase in their prison population and he joins us from member station WFYI in Indianapolis. Welcome, commissioner. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. ED BUSS (Commissioner, Indiana Department of Corrections): Well, thank you for the invitation, Michel.
MARTIN: So, Adam, I'm going to start with you. But I just want to set the table and ask you, the Public Safety Performance Project says it helps states, and I'm quoting now, advance fiscally sound data driven sentencing and corrections policies that protect public safety, hold defenders accountable and control corrections costs. That's a tall order. I did want to know if the project has an opinion per se on incarceration rates, like, what level is optimal or whether incarceration is even appropriate at all.
Mr. GELB: Well, sure it is, Michel. I mean, violent and career criminals need to be locked up behind bars for a long time. But what we're seeing and what's reflected in this report is that states are starting to realize and leaders on both sides of the aisle realize that there are research-based correction strategies for low risk offenders, people at the opposite end of the spectrum that can protect public safety at less cost than a $29,000 a year taxpayer-funded prison cell.
MARTIN: Okay, great. So, why the decrease?
Mr. GELB: Precisely for that reason. There are we know so much more now about how to supervise offenders in the community and stop that revolving door. That's what's been driving the system up, particularly for the past five or 10 years, (unintelligible) advances.
MARTIN: So it's a cost benefit analysis. Most of states have the states that have engaged in this cost benefit analysis, in your view, lowered their incarceration rates. Is that about right?
Mr. GELB: Well, some have and some haven't. There are definitely states that have acted too quickly and in response to the economic pressures of the fiscal crisis on their budget and they've made mistakes. But other states, Republicans and Democrats joining together across the aisle to roll up their sleeves, dig into their data and identify offenders at the low end of the spectrum, particularly probation violators, those who haven't broken haven't committed new crimes, but have just broken the rules of their supervision like missing a probation appointment or a treatment session and saying, you know what, there are better ways to hold these people accountable.
Put them on a curfew, get them on a GPS monitor and make sure that there is consequences and they're held accountable for their actions, but not take up a prison cell. You know, Michel, this country now has 1 in 100 people behind bars. And this slight dip in the population does not change the fact that we lead the world in incarceration.
But what states are realizing is that the more and more people we lock up, the less and less crime we're preventing at this point, since there are so many people behind bars, they're starting to make better choices about who we're spending our prison cells on.
MARTIN: Okay, Mr. Gelb, stand by. We still want to hear from you, but Commissioner Buss, let's bring you in. Your state, Indiana, saw the nation's biggest increase in prison population in the past year - that was a 5.3 percent jump. Any idea why?
Mr. BUSS: Well, thank you, Michel. Well, one, I'd like to clarify, kind of, Indiana's positions. Since 2001, Indiana has grown nearly 4 percent each year. The recent growth is pretty much a modest growth to 5 percent. So, if nothing else, Indiana's been consistent in terms of how to approach its criminal justice system.
You know, having said that, though, I do agree with Adam. I think it's a great opportunity, and I don't think we can underscore, as you alluded to, the fact that this prison decline for the first time in 38 years occurred during the Great Recession. I do think there are some opportunities there for Indiana as well.
And for the first time since 1977, when our penal code was last updated, leaders from across the state, including Governor Daniels, have called for a criminal code commission to actually evaluate our criminal justice system for the first time in 33 years. So, I do believe there's some opportunities there, as Adam has alluded to, that other states have (unintelligible).
MARTIN: So you're saying the prison, the increase in the prison population is actually small, relative to the increase in the state's total population. This is not driven, in your view, by changes in sentencing policies or arrest policies overall? It's demographically driven, in your opinion?
Mr. BUSS: No, I can't speak for the other states. But in Indiana, what I can tell you is we have consistently been at or around 4 percent since 2001 in terms of prison growth. Again, this last year we had a modest increase to 5.3 percent. But, again, I think that there's been less tolerance, I guess, in Indiana, like other states, to look at short-term gains or results by making drastic changes in the criminal justice system.
What we want to do in Indiana is we want to be smart on sentencing. We want to take a look at it from a scientific approach. And at the end of the day, as Adam alluded to, I think it doesn't have to be an either/or. You can have public safety, and at the same time make sure that we're incarcerating only those who need to be incarcerated and that non-violent offenders are under some other type of correctional control.
MARTIN: And, Adam, we have a minute and a half for a final thought from you. A lot of things to think about here. It is worth noting that the number of people in federal prisons has gone up. As we look ahead, what kinds of judgments do you want states to be making to meet the goals that we just outlined about holding people accountable while still controlling costs?
Mr. GELB: Sure. Well, states are now spending over $50 billion a year, Michel, on prisons, and that's up from just over $10 billion 25 years ago. And so, what they're saying now, and most of them are, is that we need to expand our array of punishments. We can't rely so much on prison, particularly for low-level offenders. We've got to put in place new technologies, new behavior change strategies, using risk assessment instruments and have a better system that gives taxpayers a better return on their investment in public safety.
MARTIN: Well, there's an awful lot to dig into here, so I hope we'll speak again. Adam Gelb is director of the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project. If you want to read the study we've been talking about, we'll have a link on our Web site. Just go to NPR.org, click on programs, then on TELL ME MORE. Adam, thanks for joining us, along with Indiana Department of Corrections commissioner, Ed Buss. Gentlemen, I thank you both for joining us.
Mr. GELB: Thank you, Michel.
Mr. BUSS: Thank you.
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