Trendspotting: Revealing Choices


The recently released Pew Center report on incarceration in the United States leaves little doubt that we are No. 1.

We now incarcerate one in every 100 Americans. No other western nation comes close to that ratio, and while many believe that China may incarcerate more of its citizens, no reliable data can confirm the suspicion. In June 2007, a document prepared by Jim Austin and his staff at the JFA Institute, the “Public Safety Performance Project,” predicted that by 2011 the state and federal prison population would increase by another 192,000 inmates. This does not include jails and municipal lockups.

Researchers always examine causal relationships with data and demographics, especially when key indicators seem to indicate trends that are moving in opposite directions. For example, most students of criminal justice know that reported crime is an indicator of the general state of public safety and a rise in the rate of criminal activity is generally followed by a rise in a rate of arrests and incarceration.

The print and electronic media has presented periodic findings several times during the last decade that the crime rate in United States is declining annually but that, at the same time, our incarceration rate continues to increase each year.

To be sure, for incarceration rates to rise to 1/100, more than one variable is at work. The reasons for such a startling difference between the crime and incarceration rate can be perplexing, especially to elected officials making financial decisions to assure public safety.

The answers are not simple but most have accepted that our national pastime of enacting get-tough sentencing laws, coupled with sentencing guidelines that removed discretion in sentencing from judges and placed it in the hands of prosecutors, has been a significant contributor to the increased length of stay, and thus, the incarceration rate.

Some people wrongly say that the crime rate declined because more criminals were incarcerated. Evidence from a Sentencing Project report, seems to suggest that while certain crimes have decreased with the enactment of truth-in-sentencing laws, many states that had incarceration rates lower than the national average also had even steeper declines in the crime rates.

This debate will, and should, continue as we examine why our nation carries the dubious title of the highest incarcerator.

Another silent factor deserves attention. Not only are our jails and prisons the obvious places for confining those who are accused of and/or guilty of breaking laws, but also these same mostly crowded places have become the nation’s mental health clinics and hospitals. Society, being unable or unwilling to examine the causes of crime in a more scientific, evidenced-based manner, has forced jails first and prisons, to take the responsibility of caring for the mentally ill.

The data is so discouraging in regards to the level of mental illness among the incarcerated population. While the percentage of inmates exhibiting universally recognized signs of personality disorders varies by location and adjudication status, a 2006 report in American Corrections suggested that at least 15 percent of prison inmates have serious mental illness. Another report, “Correctional Populations,” states that as many as 65 percent of male inmates have some form of personality disorder requiring treatment. Perhaps, the most astounding statistic is that as many as 44 percent of inmates in pretrial jails could be considered mentally ill.

A recent article in The New York Times shows clearly that prior to World War II, the rate of institutionalization of persons in mental hospitals was nearly 500 per 100,000 while the rate of imprisonment was less than 200 per 100,000. Beginning in late 1950s and gaining momentum at an alarming rate in the 1960 and ’70s, the nation began a deliberate, cost-driven approach to deinstitutionalizing mentally ill citizens.

Families no longer had to carry the social stigma of the crazy uncle in the “nut house” but simply dropped him off occasionally at the local mental health center for his medication. Beginning around the same time, policies were enacted to get tough on criminals as we closed most of the local mental health clinics and started building prisons at the rate of one new 500-bed prison every three days.

The evidence used for the graph illustrates an interesting public policy intersection. In the mid-1970s when our nation underwent the most in-depth values clarification since the Civil War, we were at our lowest point of per capita institutionalization in a span of more than 70 years. However, instead of investing in community-based mental health centers, we started to provide prison beds at a rate never before experienced in history. Today, the single greatest problem in America’s prisons and jails is the care and management of the mentally ill.

But that is all history. According to virtually every report released on our prison system, we have arrived at the point of accepting that a mistake may have been made 30 years ago. Now our prisons are, de facto, the mental hospitals of yesteryear. We will be judged, as we should be, now on how we manage this inherited responsibility. New programs for the care of the mentally ill inmate are emerging as states and counties realize the “if not us, whom” in the mantra of the moment.

In future editions of this magazine, this space, along with other features, will be dedicated to highlighting systems, services, programs and facilities that demonstrate means and methods of caring for the mentally ill within a prison environment. These examples, while not necessarily the most correct solutions, nonetheless, can represent the best practices currently available and serve to inspire us to change the paradigm.

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia, S.C., and a Correctional News Columnist.