TRENDSPOTTING March/April 2007 – Growing Toward Gridlock

Stephen Carter

In most aspects of life, growth is welcomed. With the announcement last October that the United States had reached 300 million residents, a collective gulp could be heard. Perhaps we knew this milestone was pending, but unless the checkout lines at Home Depot have suddenly grown intolerable, we tend not to notice population growth. Different from waist girth, population growth is measured more in decades than in months.

In a report published in 2004, the Center for Strategic International Studies noted that in terms of world population growth, 146 people are born every minute — or 209,000 each day — of which the United States contributes 8,360. The same think tank ranked the United States third in population in 2004, behind China and India, and predicted that we will maintain that ranking in 2050 when we are expected to be home to 420 million citizens.

An article titled “The Next 100 Million” from the January issue of “Planning,” a publication of the American Planning Association, stated that by 1910 the United States reached 100 million residents, but became home to 300 million people within the next 100 years. Compared to the worldwide growth of 76 million per year, the modest 2 million to 3 million a year increase in the United States seems very manageable.

How comfortable are you that the criminal justice system can manage the projected rate of growth while becoming less dependent upon foreign oil; providing affordable health care for an aging population; continuing as the world’s police force; and building enough retirement communities for impatient boomers?

Even a casual observer of the criminal justice system would be unaware that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world among those that tell the truth when reporting annual statistics. Between federal, state and local jails, our rate of incarceration is now 710 per 100,000 residents, or approximately 2.1 million in a secure environment. Today, we add approximately 1,000 more inmates to our nation’s stretched infrastructure each week. Approximately two-thirds are housed in state and federal institutions and are, theoretically, receiving more than a cot and three squares a day.

System Woes

While real estate agents and dentists salivate at the idea that 100 million more folks will need homes and root canals over the next three decades, the criminal justice system should be reaching panic mode if the current approach to retribution continues. Consider the following:

Law Enforcement. Historically, planners used 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents as a general tool to estimate the number of uniformed staff required to offer a reasonable assurance of public safety. For the sake of discussion, if this ratio was used for future planning, the United States faces the need for 225,000 additional trained and dedicated police officers. Since our estimated growth per annum is approximately 2.5 million, that means that one in every 400 adults or children moving into or being born in the United States in 2007, and each year thereafter, will need to be a law enforcement officer just to keep up with projected growth.

As the fastest growing aspect of security, the private sector will also be competing for employees with the public law enforcement sector. Thus far, most law enforcement agencies have not significantly decreased staffing requests due to the exponential increase in private security forces. Assuming current trends (remember: “the past is prologue”), a reasonable question is, “How will we secure our cities in the next three decades?”

The Judiciary. Continuing this frightening exercise, at one state court judge per 25,000 residents (more like one per 20,000 in larger urban centers), the United States will need to add 130 new judges each year to stay even with growth. This does not account for retirements and the emerging trend of judges leaving the dais for better pay in the private sector. Including other courthouse employees associated with the criminal justice system, each new judge will generate employment for at least 15 to 20 more folks. This kind of growth means that one in every 1,000 new Americans will need to report to the courthouse for work each day to assure that justice remains fair, balanced and efficient. Another question to ask: “Given our treasured Constitutional guarantees, how will we ever be able to assure that justice is not only fair, but swift?”

Incarceration. Hardly anyone still believes that the United States should continue to incarcerate at the rate of 710 persons per 100,000 while paving roads, educating first-graders, securing airspace and curing cancer. Even though we are the wealthiest neation, the notion that we should accommodate an additional 48,000 per year according to last year’s Department of Justice figures is unimaginable at best. In today’s market, that is an additional $1.5 billion each year added to the current $62 billion expenditure to incarcerate.

At a ridiculously low number, 48,000 additional prisoners per year means 5,000 more new staff, so one in every 600 new American adults and children need to prepare for a career in corrections.

Community Corrections. On a per capita basis, the United States averages approximately 1,700 per 100,000 citizens on an alternative form of community control. At a conservatively high caseload per staff of 250, one in every 125 new Americans would need to be enticed into a community corrections career if we sustain the current trends in community-based control. Although significantly less expensive and perhaps far more effective in reducing repeat offenses, a gradual or even accelerated shift to community corrections will have a monumental economic impact.

Any Way Out?

Based on staffing needs alone, approximately 10 in every 1,000 new citizens will need to be employed in the criminal justice system every year for the next 30 years. Annually, 30,000 new police officers, judges, clerks, prosecutors, case managers, correctional officers and defenders will need to be attracted to these fields of employment. Compared to 14,000 new jobs created each year in the architectural and engineering fields, careers in criminal justice may seem more plentiful.

However, needing qualified staff and meeting the need for such are rarely ever aligned. Even if growth creates the need for 30,000 new criminal justice positions each year, funding such growth happens in our government virtually one position at a time. And, dare I risk saying this level of new employment translates to a new criminal justice staff investment of at least $2.3 billion each year?

Our net new 100 million Americans over the next three decades have every right to expect at least the same levels of personal freedom, public safety and equal justice that we currently enjoy. Our economy (measured in GDP) has grown at an average annual rate of 3.1 percent over the past 20 years and in 2006 was pegged at $13.3 trillion. The net new expenditure of $2.3 billion (non-capital) added to the current $192 billion spent for law enforcement, judiciary and corrections is barely 15 percent of the national economy, but an expenditure that helps to generate the other 85 percent.

We have no choice but to succeed. No only do 300 million (soon to be 400 million) Americans expect that our criminal justice system is the most fair and efficient possible, but a world that will be home to 11 billion people in three decades will continue to monitor, criticize and emulate our decisions. If the soul of a nation can truly been found by observing the criminal justice system, we have much to learn from our past and additional work to do in preparation for our anticipated new citizens.

Imagination and boldness will be required of every component of the criminal justice system to meet the growth challenge. Systems don’t change unless people change systems, and that is why choosing the next 30,000 employees is so critical.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C.

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