New priorities, budget aid low prison rates

By By Brandon Beifuss

By Brandon Beifuss

Now that the New Year has begun and the first quarter is under way, new statistics are revealing the state and orientation of our society in many ways.

These statistics coincide with an interesting fact that has stood since the 1970s: Despite being one of the richest nations, with a per capita gross domestic product of $46,900, according to the CIA World Factbook, the United States has the largest incarcerated population, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies from King’s College in London.

The most current statistics released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics report that in the United States, there are more than 7.3 million people in correctional supervision, which can mean parole, probation, prison or jail.

Last year, federal and state prisons held 1.6 million sentenced prisoners. That is 400,000 more people than the Salt Lake Valley’s total population.

Both the stock and the flow into the U.S. Department of Corrections is a monstrous number that continues to be a financial burden. Some crimes for which we incarcerate are ticketable offenses in other countries, such as first-time drug offenses. Another area of improvement can be found in the technical parole violations, which are parole contract violations and not always full-fledged crimes. The weaknesses of the system can be seen in the numbers, though they have changed quite a bit from years past.

Surprisingly, these same statistics are key indicators of improvement.

“The U.S. prison population grew at the slowest rate (0.8 percent) since 2000,” according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics press release. For the first time in a while, the United States might have actually released more people than it imprisoned.

One question that should be asked is, why the sudden change? Like with many recent developments, the recession plays a role. With a harsh budget constraint on the correctional department, the number to early releases, commuted sentences, probations and paroles are all on the rise. However, the frequency of persons entering the parole and probation pool has diminished since the middle of the decade.

Still, these numbers are indicative of a greater priority: a balanced budget. When faced with a definite looming bottom line, the United States has chosen to release its prisoners or lighten their sentences in an attempt to cut costs.

Utah’s Department of Corrections is no stranger to these developments, as www.performance.utah.gov can highlight. Utah can assist the negative incarceration rate through the continual decline in the capacity of the UDC facilities. In another area, the UDC advertises its graphs that measure recidivism, or rate of return offense from its parolee program.

Our local statistics mirror the national rates, which show a dropping rate of recidivism. The average monthly population has also been on the decline since January 2006, according to the same source. There is a single category where Utah is bucking the trend, however, and that is in technical violation parole returns, which has gradually increased during the measured time period from 2000 to 2007.

To counteract this, the UDC has already begun to implement a program that creates a midway housing complex for those with technical violations, so they do not return all the way to prison. Instead, they stop halfway and have the opportunity to correct the difficulties they seem to have.

In light of a budget crunch, the Department of Corrections has chosen to imprison fewer people, seen in both national and local statistics. The numbers of parolees and those on probation have increased, but still the incarceration rate begrudgingly climbs on the national level. In order to truly master the stifling numbers of prisoners, both in terms of the per capita and the sum, more emphasis must be placed on successful reintroduction methods for long-term prisoners and repeat offenders as seen in the Parole Violation Center created by UDC, as well as for simple first-time misdemeanors.

Only after re-evaluating the priority set of the correctional system as emphasizing corrections and in lieu of institutionalization can the system begin to churn out a negative national net incarceration rate that could come as early as next year.

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