America's One Million Nonviolent Prisoners

By Irwin, John; Schiraldi, Vincent et al. | Social Justice, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

America's One Million Nonviolent Prisoners


Irwin, John, Schiraldi, Vincent, Ziedenberg, Jason, Social Justice


I. Introduction

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, NO AREA OF STATE GOVERNMENT EXPENDITURES has increased as rapidly as prisons and jails. Justice Department data released on March 15, 1999, show that the number of prisoners in America has more than tripled over the last two decades from 500,000 to 1.8 million, with states like California and Texas experiencing eightfold prison population increases during that time. America's overall prison population now exceeds the combined populations of Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

What is most disturbing about the prison population explosion is that the people being sent to prison are not the Ted Bundies, Charlie Mansons, and Timothy McVeighs -- or even less sensationalized robbers, rapists, and murders -- that the public imagines them to be. Most are defendants who have been found guilty of nonviolent and not particularly serious crimes that do not involve any features that agitate high levels of concern in the minds of the public. Too often, they are imprisoned under harsh mandatory sentencing schemes that were ostensibly aimed at the worst of the worse.

As this analysis will show, the very opposite has been true over the past 20 years. Most of the growth in America's prisons since 1978 is accounted for by nonviolent offenders and 1998 is the first year in which America's prisons and jails incarcerated more than one million nonviolent offenders.

The cost of incarcerating over one million nonviolent offenders is staggering. The growth in prison and jail populations has produced a mushrooming in prison and jail budgets. In 1978, the combined budgets for prisons and jails amounted to five billion dollars. By 1997, that figure had grown to $31 billion (Camp and Camp, 1997). States around the country are now spending more to build prisons than they do on colleges, and the combined prison and jail budgets for 1.2 million nonviolent prisoners exceeded the entire federal welfare budget for 8.5 million poor people last year.

This report will analyze the growth in the nonviolent prisoner population. We will explore some of the implications of the increase in nonviolent prisoners in terms of cost and public safety, and suggest some approaches that local, state, and federal governments should consider to address the incarceration of one million nonviolent prisoners.

II. One Million Nonviolent Prisoners

The percentage of violent offenders [1] held in the state prison system has actually declined from 57% in 1978 (Hindelang et al., 1981: 577) to 47% in 1997 (Gilliard and Beck, 1998:11). However, the prison and jail population has tripled over that period, from roughly 500,000 in 1978, to 1.8 million by 1998. According to data collected by the United States Justice Department, from 1978 to 1996, the number of violent offenders entering our nation's prisons doubled (from 43,733 to 98,672 inmates), the number of nonviolent offenders tripled (from 83,721 to 261,796 inmates), and the number of drug offenders increased sevenfold (from 14,241 to 114,071 inmates). As such, 77% of the growth in intake to America's state and federal prisons between 1978 and 1996 was accounted for by nonviolent offenders (see Table 1 at the end of the article). [2]

According to Department of Justice data, 52.7% of state prison inmates, 73.7% of jail inmates, and 87.6% of federal inmates were imprisoned for offenses that involved neither harm, nor the threat of harm, to a victim (Ibid.; Harlow, 1998:2). Assuming these relative percentages held true for 1998, it can be estimated that by the end of that year, there were 440,088 nonviolent jail inmates, 639,280 nonviolent state prison inmates, and 106,090 nonviolent federal prisoners locked up in America, for a total of 1,185,458 nonviolent prisoners. The combined impact of the growth of prison and jail populations in general -- and the accelerated growth of the nonviolent segment of the incarcerated population in particular -- has given 1998 the dubious distinction of being the first full year in which more than one million nonviolent prisoners were held in Americas jails and prisons for the entire year. …

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