Citing the new Pew Center on the States report that more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars, the New York Times calls the high U.S. imprisonment rate ” terrible waste of money and lives.” The newspaper urges “the federal government and cash-strapped states to reduce their overreliance on incarceration without sacrificing public safety.” The key is getting smarter about distinguishing between violent criminals and repeat offenders who need a prison cell, and low-risk offenders,who can be handled with effective community supervision, electronic monitoring, and mandatory drug treatment.
The Times editorializes that persuading officials to adopt a more rational, cost-effective approach is a daunting prospect, partly because because building and running jailhouses has become a major industry. The newspaper says many Americans wrongly believe that keeping an outsized chunk of the population locked up is essential for sustaining a historic crime drop since the 1990's. Part of the decline is attributable to tough sentencing and release policies, but crime is also affected economic trends and drug-abuse rates. States that lagged behind the national average in rising incarceration rates in the 1990's actually experienced a steeper decline in crime rates than states above the national average, says the Sentencing Project. More use of community supervision in places like Kansas and Texas are “signs that the country may finally be waking up to the fiscal and moral costs of bulging prisons,” the Times says.