This week the Pew Center on the States released a report titled One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections (pdf). It’s a report that seems intended both to illustrate the extraordinary scale of American corrections and to point toward the cost savings to governments that could come with changes to this system. In particular, the authors suggest that states are going to need to turn to community corrections more extensively as money runs out to put ever more people in prison.
The drug war does not seem to come in for much critical analysis in this report, despite the fact that the authors note that the largest growth in Americans under correctional supervision is in people on probation or parole and that more than half of all probationers are on probation for property or drug crime. For example, in one odd passage the authors note that applying harsh prison sentences to individuals who sell street drugs “has a negligible impact on crime,” but in the same breath the authors state that such individuals “no doubt deserve punishment.” Do they? I’m not sure that’s so clear.
The Pew Center’s report is an opportunity to consider what happens to all the drug offenders that we arrest and then place on probation through programs like California’s Prop. 36. The fact that these people are often on probation, and not in prison, is sometimes cited by law enforcement officials as evidence that the drug war is actually quite humane. And In some ways I suppose that it is indeed a useful system and one that tries to give some weight to the comparative harmlessness of drug use, but it also causes the ranks of probationers to mushroom. For the people on probation, of course, it’s also a system in which the 4th Amendment no longer applies and in which heightened police surveillance is a normal part of life.
(Above: A chart from the Pew Center report showing growth in jail, prison, parole and probation populations from 1982 through 2007. Click to enlarge.)