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By Janet Allon

Rather limp efforts to shrink America’s devastatingly high prison population have run into a snag. A report just released by the Justice Department for the year 2013 has revealed that after three years of declining numbers, the number of people incarcerated in state and federal prisons jumped up again last year.

The message is clear: more drastic reforms are needed to the country’s sentencing practices.

According to the New York Times, the Justice Department report placed the prison population at 1,574,741 last year, which is an increase of 4,300 over the year before, and not that far below the high of 1,615,487 in 2009. While there was a slight decrease in the number of federal prisoners (the first such drop in years) that was more than canceled out by an increase in inmates in state prisons. Criminolgists have pointed out that states need to do far more to keep non-violent drug offenders out of the prison system, and to give probationers second chances and sentencing alternatives.

Steven Raphael, a criminal justice expert at the University of California, Berkeley told the Times that even the declines in previous years posed no signifcant reason to celebrate, explaining they were largely driven by one steep drop in California which was forced under court order to reduce overcrowding in its prisons. The effect did not last.

Per the Times:

After initial declines, however, California’s prison population has leveled out. Across the country, drug courts’ sending addicts to treatment programs rather than jail has proved valuable but been directed mainly at offenders who would not have served much prison time anyway, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a private group in Washington.

At the same time, Mr. Mauer said, more life sentences and other multidecade terms have been imposed than ever, offsetting modest gains in the treatment of low-level offenders.

Far-reaching reform is needed, but is politically contentious especially in an election year when law-and-order candidates tend to win the day through lots of fear-mongering. Of course, the country’s propensity for imprisoning people disproportionately affects African-Americans, as well as far outpacing other Western democracies.

More from the Times:

Given the evidence that few people are involved in criminal activity beyond their mid-30s, some experts are also asking whether it makes sense to keep aging inmates behind bars rather than under community supervision.

The size of the federal prison population is closely tied to federal drug laws and penalties. A majority of the 215,866 offenders in federal prisons in 2013 were there on drug charges, often serving lengthy sentences under get-tough policies that have increasingly come under question.

Recent changes in federal drug enforcement — a 2010 law to reduce disparities in sentences for crimes involving crack as opposed to powdered cocaine, and a directive from Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. calling for less stringent charges against nonviolent offenders — are too new to have had a large impact in 2013.

The drop by 2,000 in federal prisoners last year may, however, reflect other changes in responses to drug offenders, Dr. Rosenfeld said. Just as many local police forces have eased up on arrests and prosecutions for marijuana possession, he said, prosecutors may have become less likely to bring federal indictments for less serious marijuana-related crimes.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which is now before Congress and has won bipartisan support, would cut some of the federal government’s mandatory drug sentences by half, make the reduced penalties for crack-cocaine violations retroactive and give judges more discretion over sentencing.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.