WASHINGTON - The number of Americans in prison has risen eight-fold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to taxpayers and society, researchers said in a report calling for a major justice-system overhaul.
The report released on Monday cites statistics and examples ranging from former vice-presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby to a Florida woman's two-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee to make its case for reducing the U.S. prison population.
It recommends shorter sentences and parole terms, alternative punishments, more help for released inmates and decriminalizing recreational drugs as steps that would cut the prison population in half, save $20 billion a year and ease social inequality without endangering the public.
"President (George W.) Bush was right," in commuting Libby's perjury sentence this year, the report says. "But while he was at it, President Bush should have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of Americans who each year have also received prison sentences for crimes that pose little if any danger or harm to our society."
The report was produced by the JFA Institute, a Washington criminal-justice research group, and its authors included eight criminologists from major U.S. public universities. It was funded by the Rosenbaum Foundation and financier George Soros's Open Society Institute.
Its recommendations run counter to broad U.S. public support for getting tough on criminals through longer, harsher sentences and to the Bush administration's anti-drug stance.
But the report cites state and local trends such as medical-marijuana laws as signs attitudes toward punishment may be shifting.
More than 1.5 million people are now in U.S. state and federal prisons, and the number has risen each year from 196,429 in 1970, the report said. Another 750,000 people are in U.S. jails.
Although the U.S. crime rate declined in the 1990s and much of this decade, it is still about the same as in 1973, it said. But the prison population has soared because sentences have gotten longer and people who violate parole or probation are more likely to be imprisoned.
"There is no evidence that keeping people in prison longer makes us any safer," JFA President James Austin, a co-author of the report, said in a release.
The report said the prison population is projected to grow by another 192,000 in five years, at a cost of $27.5 billion to build and operate additional prisons.
At current rates, one-third of all black males, one-sixth of Latino males, and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives.
Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, the report said. The result is increased social and racial inequality.
"The massive incarceration of young males from mostly poor- and working-class neighborhoods, and the taking of women from their families and jobs, has crippled their potential for forming healthy families and achieving economic gains," it said.
© 2007 Reuters