17 March 2006

The Imprisoning Society Is A Recent Development

The United States Sentencing Commission's strong bias towards harsh sentences, independent of Congress, is one of the important reasons for an incredible jump in federal prison populations in the past quarter century:

The federal prison population has skyrocketed, rising from 24,000 in 1980 to over 188,000 today, at a cost of over $4 billion per year. . . . For eighteen years, and through 680 amendments, the Commission has approved a steady increase in Guidelines sentences. It has added and increased the impact of aggravating factors year after year, but only rarely added mitigating factors. Worse, many mitigating factors that were present in early versions of the Guidelines have been removed. Although Congress mandated some of these changes, most were initiated by the Commission itself. For example, independent of mandatory minimum laws, by 2002, the Guidelines accounted for 25% of the more than doubling of drug trafficking sentences, the tripling of immigration offense sentences, and a doubling of sentences for firearm possession and trafficking.

Developments at the state level are similarly recent. For example, in 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Colorado had 20,228 people in prison. In 1992, the number was 8,474.

Incidentally, Colorado's growing prison population has been quite preditable. For example, seven years ago, in December of 1998, the Department of Corrections predicted that the inmate population in 2005 would be 21,786 while the research arm of the legislature predicted that it would be 19,609, the reality is just 2% higher than the average of those two estimates. Projecting forward, the average of the two agencies predictions for 2010 of 25,512 is very credible.

Crime is not up 250% since 1992 in Colorado, and federal crime is not up 783% since 1980. We, as a nation, have dramatically increased the use of imprisonment as a punishment in recent history. The time has come to re-evaluate that collective decision.

1 comment:

Sotosoroto said...

Rising prison populations and decreasing crime rates seem to go hand-in-hand. Cause and effect, no paradox in sight.

It's working; don't try to fix it.