PEW Study Summary: Growing Prison Population

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The PEW study provides a glimpse into troubling statistics of America’s growing prison population—a population that is showing little signs of stopping on a national level, especially becoming a concern for poorer states. Though some states have “a flattening of growth, or even a decline” (3), there is a variety of reasons that may be linked or work in lockstep for this result. One potentiality is that “policy choices” (3) may result in more criminals actually being incarcerated and being held longer. Problematically, the prison population increase has tripled from 1987 to 2007 resulting in a figure approximating more than 1 in 100 adults being imprisoned. This does not account for the minutiae of the study which also provides data for incarceration rates for more specific qualities such as race, age, and sex. The study suggests that young males of minority descent are more likely to end up inside prisons as opposed to the older members of their family or white men and women. However, these traits might also vary by state. While the growth “transcended geographical boundaries” (7), there are specificities to the correctional system in certain states that might influence the fluctuation of the prison population. For example, “in Kentucky, an indeterminate sentencing structures means the parole board has broad powers to determine when a prisoner is suitable for release” (7) and thus they wield considerable influence as to how many should stay behind bars.

Considering that “prisons and jails are “24-7” operations” (11), their existence demands a workforce that is large, effective, and capable. There is no single figure for every state, but “researchers cite $65,000 per bed as the best approximation for a typical medium-security facility” (11), at least considering capital expenses. A figure at nearly $50 billion becomes more realistic when confronted by the immense population. These financial problems are then compounded with everything a correctional facility needs—and unforeseen situations that the staff must adapt to —when there is simply too little resource-wise to compete with a growing population. The prison population is not wholly comprised of young men. Less virile prisoners might require an assortment of unique treatments—not only for their safety but perhaps even their health, which then creates a complex circumstance of “management factors. As a result, the average cost associated with an older prisoner is $70,000—two to three times that of a younger prisoner” (13).

As a solution, the study also provides information that suggests that “early childhood education [is] one of the most proven crime prevention strategies” (16). Some states have chosen to tailor their correctional systems to better suit the rehabilitation of criminals and “are proving more cost-effective and at least as effective” (17) as the traditional system. As the prison sentences are given and the population grows, so does the cost, as the capacity must be able to keep up. Previous violators sometimes commit new crimes, but a significant number go back to prison for “technical” violations” (18). Sometimes the violator in question may be maintaining a civil and law-abiding lifestyle, but they may have failed a “drug test or missed [an] appointment with a supervisory agent” (18). Overall, the study stresses that the prison population is quickly increasing and it is not easy to reallocate funding, or induce profit, so “the potential of new approaches cannot be ignored” (20). 

Work Cited

The Pew Charitable Trusts. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008. Washington: The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2008. PDF.