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The Epidemic of Prisons

Many people believe that America is addicted to prisons, but a better metaphor for how this came about may be found in epidemiology. A recent book, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America by Ernest Drucker, suggests that the rapid increase in incarceration rates is more like the flu or other type of epidemic. He uses the methods used by public health officials to track epidemics as a way to understand the growth in the prison population.

It started, says Drucker, with New York's Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1973, who pushed through tough drug laws in response to a rise in heroin use. These laws mandated lengthy sentences for many - even minor - drug offenses. The sentences for possession of even small amounts of some drugs were the equivalent of those imposed for serious felonies such as murder, rape and armed robbery. Rockefeller was determined to show that he was tough on crime, and the so-called Rockefeller drug laws were part of that effort.

The New York model spread to other states, with governors and lawmakers pointing to New York as the shining example of how to implement tough laws. In short, the epidemic became contagious and started to spread.

The third step in the epidemic of harsh drug sentences was what public health experts call an "exposed population." In New York, for example, most people affected by the new laws were not college students with a small amount of pot; they were members of Hispanic and black communities, who may have possessed a similar amount to the mythical college student, but were exposed to the virus in a way that a middle class college student was not. The incarceration rate for Hispanics and blacks was 30 times higher than for whites charged with similar offenses.

The epidemic of incarceration was sustained by related post-incarceration parole policies that that parolees at constant risk of reoffending and returning to the prison population for technical or minor parole violations, not a new criminal offense. Today, two-thirds of released inmates are returned to prison within three years.

There are two very serious consequences to the prison epidemic. One is the children growing up in households where one or more of the members are incarcerated for drug offenses. For these kids, incarceration is normal, and is another important reason that the prison epidemic is so easily sustained. The second consequence is that inmates released from prison are often unable to find work, housing or social services. Their only option becomes returning to prison.

In New Jersey, the number of state prison inmates grew from 5,704 to 25,000 in the years between 190 and 2009. Drucker says that this is almost entirely due to the epidemic of incarceration, rather than an epidemic of drug use. Not incarcerating minor offenders could stop this epidemic in its tracks and reduce the prison population by 30 percent. New York has started the process; a 2009 drug law reform act has given judges more leeway in sentencing.

Source: The Times of Trenton, "How America's prison epidemic spread to New Jersey",  by Ronald Fraser, Nov. 27, 2011.

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