Tuesday, March 4, 2008

If 1 in 100 American adults are in prison, how many are innocent?

The United States has passed a milestone with, apparently, very little fanfare. We now incarcerate more than 1 in 100 adults in this country -- 1 in 99.1 to be exact. Let's repeat that. 1 in 99.1 American adults are currently in prison or jail.

The numbers were released last week in a report by The Public Safety Performance Project:

Launched in 2006 as an operating project of the Pew Center on the States, the Public Safety Performance Project helps states advance fiscally sound, data-driven sentencing and corrections policies and practices that protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control costs. The Project currently collaborates with the Pew Center on the States and five external partners to provide expert, nonpartisan information and assistance to 13 states that want a better return on their public safety investments.
Why isn't the media all over this report? Yes, there have been the obligatory stories on the data, but that flurry of attention was over in a day or two. Am I the only one who thinks this is one of the scariest pieces of news to hit the media (albeit briefly) in a long time? The United States, "land of the free, and the home of the brave," incarcerates a much higher percentage of our population than any other country in the world.

The sheer numbers alone are staggering:
At the start of the new year, the American penal system held more than 2.3 million adults. China was second, with 1.5 million people behind bars, and Russia was a distant third with 890,000 inmates, according to the latest available figures.
When you break the numbers down into demographics, they look even worse (if possible). While "one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, the figure is one in nine for black males in that age group... In addition, one in every 53 adults in their 20s is behind bars...."

This "lock 'em up" mentality doesn't come cheap. We're currently spending about $55 billion a year to house the 2.3 million people currently behind bars in this country. And ironically, it's not necessarily making us any safer.
"For all the money spent on corrections today, there hasn’t been a clear and convincing return for public safety,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project. “More and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons for lower-level offenders and finding strategies that are tough on crime without being so tough on taxpayers.”
One can only hope that "more and more states are beginning to rethink their reliance on prisons." You don't get that sense from the report's numbers, however. Thirty-six states and the federal government saw an increase in their prison populations in 2007, including Florida, whose incarcerated population grew by more than 4,000 inmates. According to the state's Department of Corrections web site, "On June 30, 2007, 493 of every 100,000 Floridians were incarcerated compared to 453 in 2003." (That figure is for prisons only, and does not include those behind bars in local jails around the state.)

Florida currently spends 9.3% of its general fund on the state's correctional system. Image credit: Florida Dept. of HealthOnly three other states' percentages are that high or more. To put these numbers in perspective, consider this: for every dollar Florida spent on higher education in 2007, the state spent $.66 on corrections. Contrast that figure with 1987, when the ratio was $.34 per $1.00.
Between 1993 and 2007, the state’s inmate population has increased from 53,000 to over 97,000. While crime and a growing resident population play a role, most of the growth, analysts agree, stemmed from a host of correctional policies and practices adopted by the state.

One of the first came in 1995, when the legislature abolished “good time” credits and discretionary release by the parole board, and required that all prisoners—regardless of their crime, prior record, or risk to recidivate—serve 85 percent of their sentence. Next came a “zero tolerance” policy and other measures mandating that probation officers report every offender who violated any condition of supervision and increasing prison time for these “technical violations.” As a result, the number of violators in Florida prisons has jumped by an estimated 12,000.

Crime in Florida has dropped substantially during this period, but it has fallen as much or more in some states that have not grown their prison systems, or even have shrunk them, such as New York. Without a change of direction, Florida is expected to reach a peak of nearly 125,000 inmates by 2013. Based on that projection, the state will run out of prison capacity by early 2009 and will need to add another 16,500 beds to keep pace.
So what does all of this have to do with the Innocence Project of Florida? Well the first thing I thought of is how many of these incarcerated people are innocent?

If Florida currently houses over 97,000 inmates, then we have to assume that, at the very least (one percent), 970 of them are innocent. On the high end (an estimated ten percent), that number jumps to 9,700. Since 2000, Florida has released just nine innocent people due to DNA testing.

One thing this work has taught me is that there is a critical need to investigate claims of innocence in this state, indeed in this country. I'm well aware that a lot of people will be quick to say, "Oh, yeah, everybody in prison is innocent," but the hard truth is that there are innocent people in prison and a very real need for more people working to do something about it. According to Samuel R. Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan:
The good news is that the great majority of convicted defendants in the United States are guilty; the bad news is that a substantial number are not. Is an error rate of 2% or 3% or 5% high or low? That depends on your point of view and your purpose.

If 1% of commercial airliners crashed on takeoff, we'd shut down every airline in the country. That would be nearly 300 crashes a day. If as few as 1% of criminal convictions are erroneous, right now there are more than 20,000 innocent defendants behind bars.
Another thing I've learned is that wrongful incarceration is still not on everyone's radar. Innocence projects haven't been around long enough to lay claim to a colored ribbon to increase awareness of our cause, like breast cancer's pink one or the Heart Association's red. And criminal justice issues, like prison reform and innocence projects, don't generate the same warm, fuzzy response as a homeless child or an abused puppy, but that doesn't make the work any less important. We communicate daily with real people, perhaps someone's teacher, or neighbor, or son or brother, whose lives, and the lives of their families, have been devastated by a wrongful conviction and its resulting incarceration. The damage can endure for generations.

Unfortunately, Florida does not yet have statewide remedies in place, changes to "the old way of doing things" that have proven to be effective in protecting innocent citizens from falling victim to the horrors of wrongful incarceration. I remain hopeful that the situation will change as more people become aware of this nightmare that can truly happen to anyone.

Florida, like most of the country, has its work cut out for it as it seeks to right some of the wrongs within its criminal justice system. Protecting innocent Floridians from wrongful imprisonment should be high on that list.

Link to the complete report.


FLJerseyBoy said...

Excellent, thorough and cohesive post.

One thing I didn't see (chalk it up to sloppy reading rather than sloppy writing!) was what percent of FL's population is in prison -- how's it compare to that 1 in 99.1 nationwide figure?

For some reason this reminds me of that old saw which goes something like, "If 1 in 10 people in the country is mentally ill, and 9 of your friends are just fine, well..."

Toni said...

Thanks for joining the discussion. I too was curious about Florida's percentage rate, but the report didn't provide that information by state. I thought about trying to calculate it myself, but the only figures I had available were from the Dept. of Corrections, which includes only the state's prison populations. To get an accurate percentage to compare to the national figure, I'd have had to include all of the jail populations, information I just didn't have. (The Pew Center used a complex method to estimate these figures for its report.)

Unknown said...

Hi. Just wanted to let you know that we used one of your articles for our show today on moblogic.tv (http://www.moblogic.tv/video/2008/03/13/one-out-of-a-hundred/).

Here's the link to our blog post. (http://www.moblogic.tv/blog/2008/03/13/were-number-1/).

We'd love it if you checked it out. Please let us know what you think (good or bad). Your opinion means a lot to us.

Amanda Elend