United States of Incarceration: Jail Terms Increasing, DOJ Reports

January 11, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU News Wire: 1-11-99 — United States of Incarceration: Jail Terms Increasing, DOJ Reports

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NEW YORK–The recent wave of tougher sentencing laws has succeeded in making criminals serve longer prison sentences and slowed the release of inmates, according to the first comprehensive study of the new laws released yesterday by the Justice Department, The New York Times reports today.

There are now a total of 1.8 million Americans behind bars — in jails and state or Federal prisons — and the state prison population has been growing at 7 percent annually since 1990, though the crime rate has fallen for seven consecutive years.

While the report clearly demonstrates that the new laws have achieved the public’s goal of making criminals serve longer prison sentences, there is still widespread debate among criminologists, law enforcement officials and politicians over how much this has contributed to the drop in crime, the Times reported.

Elizabeth Alexander, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, said that ill-advised laws are to blame for the dramatic increase in America’s prison population.

“According to criminologists, crime rates are falling not because of truth-in-sentencing policies but because of demographics,” she said. “The Justice Department’s new report demonstrates how knee-jerk legislative initiatives can create a crisis.”

Indeed, as law professor Franklin Zimring told the Times, “The fundamental thing the report shows is that changes in the American prison population are the result of a shift in policy, rather than any basic change in the nature of criminals or the crime rate.”

In addition to changes in laws under which inmates must serve longer sentences, the Justice Department found other factors that have resulted in longer time served.

Fifteen states have eliminated parole boards, reacting to the public’s feeling that the boards were too lenient on inmates. Overall release rates from state prisons, for those eligible for release, have dropped from 31 percent from 37 percent in 1990, the report found.

One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that African Americans are incarcerated at a great rate than whites and generally serve more time for the same crime than white inmates. The difference was most pronounced for rape, with black inmates serving an average of 70 months while whites serve 56 months. For drug offenses, blacks serve 20 months and whites 18 months, the report said.

But for murder the situation is reversed. Blacks serve an average of 86 months, while whites serve 90 months. Because most murders occur within a race — with most whites killing other whites and most blacks killing other blacks — these statistics suggest that the key factor in sentencing for murder may be the race of the victim, not the race of the killer, with a lesser value being placed on the life of the black victim, the Times said.

Source: The New York Times, January 11, 1999

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