The U.S. criminal justice system relies too heavily on imprisoning people and needs to consider more effective alternatives, according to a study released yesterday by the American Bar Association, the nation's largest lawyers' organization.
"For more than 20 years, we've gotten tougher on crime," said former Detroit mayor and current ABA President Dennis W. Archer. But it is unclear, Archer said, whether America is any safer for having 2.1 million people currently behind bars.
"We can no longer sit by as more and more people - particularly in minority communities - are sent away for longer and longer periods of time while we make it more and more difficult for them to return to society after they serve their time," Archer said at a Washington, D.C., news conference. "The system is broken. We need to fix it."
Both the number of incarcerated Americans and the cost of locking them up are high, the ABA report said - and have been escalating significantly in recent years.
Between 1974 and 2002, the number of inmates in federal and state prisons rose six-fold. By 2002, 476 out of every 100,000 Americans were imprisoned, according to Justice Department statistics. That compares to 100 per 100,000 in western European countries such as England, France, Germany and Italy.
In 1982, the states and federal government spent $9 million on jails and prisons. By 1999, the figure had risen to $49 million.
The study was launched in response to an August speech by Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in which he urged the ABA to study "the inadequacies - and the injustices - in our prison and correctional systems."
Kennedy, who was appointed to the high court by President Ronald Reagan, said last year that "our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long." He called for the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences, saying that the current system gives prosecutors too much power to, in effect, determine sentences by the nature of the charges they file.
He also made pointed remarks about the demographics of the nation's inmates. "Nationwide, more than 40 percent of the prison population consists of African-American inmates," Kennedy said. "In some cities, more than 50 percent of young African-American men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system."
That reality is not likely to change, according to the ABA study. Based on current trends, a black male born in 2001 has a one in three chance of being imprisoned during his lifetime, while the chances for a Latino male are one in six and for a white male, one in 17.
Yesterday, Archer and George Washington University law professor Stephen A. Salzburg, who led the ABA's Kennedy Commission, presented its report to the justice at its Washington headquarters.
The report contains numerous reform proposals. Among them: the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, more funding for substance abuse and mental health programs, assistance for prisoners re-entering society, task forces to study racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system and expanded use of clemency and pardons to reduce sentences.
The ABA commission said that, based on past statistics, about one-third of the 650,000 inmates set to be released this year will return to prison.
The commission put considerable emphasis on reducing recidivism rates. For example, the report recommended that Congress and state legislatures eliminate "unnecessary legal barriers" that make it difficult for released prisoners to become productive members of society.
In particular, the report noted, individuals convicted of drug offenses, even minor ones, are permanently ineligible for federal student loans, housing assistance or other public aid.
The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.