Reality behind bars

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

The Pew Centres study of the prison population in the U.S. offers important lessons for India.

REARED by a single mother and by his grandparents. he took the middle-class professional route out of poverty. He went to Harvard and was Editor of the Harvard Law Review, a post of high prestige. Yet, his childhood and youth may never have been more than a minor slip away from social disaster. More than one in 10 of his black contemporaries did not reach Harvard; instead they were sent to the penitentiary.

This in brief is a profile of United States presidential-aspirant Barack Obama, as drawn recently by The Times (London) columnist William Rees-Mogg. The context was the just-released report One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008 by the Pew Centre on the States, a leading non-partisan think tank in the U.S, which has come out with a down-to-earth analysis of how prisons dictate life to many in the country. Many shrewd observers of the current presidential campaign highlight this as the major dilemma that will confront Obama, if and when he enters the White House. Will he pull out the African-American community out of the quagmire of poverty, drugs and crime?

Obama is no doubt trying his best to steer clear of any attempt to brand him merely as a black candidate, who will be called upon to sort out the major problems that afflict his brethren. Crime is undoubtedly one such problem if one goes by the forbidding statistics alone. There is near consensus that however hard he tries, Obama cannot get away from the fact that once elected, he will be mostly identified with the African-American population and assessed at least partially by what he does for them.

The question that will be raised again and again, wherever he goes, will be why so many African-Americans find themselves on the wrong side of the law so early in their youth and why so many of them actually end up in prison. If Obama chooses to ignore this issue as one that cannot be solved just by the White House, he will be looked upon as a failed President, the also-ran, who could not care for the millions for whom crime is a harsh reality, as victims or as perpetrators.

The Pew Centres report is nothing sensational to talk about. It only puts down certain facts especially the African-American nexus with law enforcement already known to many in its proper perspective. The report may not shock even those who are only vaguely familiar with the U.S crime scene. However, without detracting from the merits of the research that has gone into the report, it is clear that the Pew Centre knows how to market its wares. The catchy title of the publication, for instance, should carry the day. The statistics offered are more alluring.

The U.S. has nearly 300 million people, of whom 230 million are adults. According to a count last year, there were 2.3 million detainees, that is, 10 per cent of the population, in prisons (Federal and State-run) and jails (that are locally managed). What is more eye-catching is the fact that from 1987 to 2007, prison population in the country increased three-fold, from a mere 585,000 to 1.5 million.

One explanation for the rise is the tougher sentencing policy adopted by most States, beginning with the late 1980s and early 1990s. One new Federal law imposed mandatory prison terms for crack cocaine offenders. The infamous Three Strikes and Youre Out law adopted by many States also pushed up the number of inmates. What was worse was that many who had been out on parole or probation returned to prison for mere technical violations of conditions imposed on them while being released.

The racial break-up of prison population is much more telling. The highest incarceration rates are among black men in the age group 20-34 and black women older than 35 but less than 40. If however, you take into account only those who are 18 years or older, one among every 15 blacks is locked up. The corresponding figure for whites was just one in 106.

The Pew Centre report is a comprehensive account of the situation on the field. Apart from criminologists, it should be appealing even to management experts or economists when it refers to the mounting costs of administering prisons: the Federal government spends $55 billion annually and States just 5 billion lesser. These sums are spent on building new prisons, heightening security measures in existing prisons, and prisoner healthcare. One cannot visualise any scaling-down of expenditure in the days to come, particularly when there is no prospect of closing down even a few existing ones in a highly crime-prone country such as the U.S.

When the report talks of huge costs in running a mammoth prison system, the question that naturally arises is whether the law-abiding and taxing-paying citizen is getting a proportionate benefit of safety and security out of the state expenditure. Or is the money going down the drain as in the case of many other government departments?

This leads us to one traditional approach of criminal justice scholars, which focusses on a cost-benefit analysis. In fact, Professor Paul Cassell of the University of Utah lambastes the Pew Centre for being lopsided in highlighting only the money spent on prisons without referring at length to the direct benefit of a drop in crime rate resulting from the locking-up of dangerous and habitual criminals. New York City, for instance, has reported lower crime rates in recent years. One reason for this was the aggressive zero tolerance policing of Commissioner Bill Bratton (who now heads the Los Angeles Police Department) and those who followed him.

But then, this was not necessarily accompanied by a rise in prison population. There was actually a lower imprisonment rate in the city around this time, with the police concentrating on the more active and dangerous criminals with a recidivist tendency who accounted for a substantial number of offences.

The lesser offenders were possibly let-off with either a warning or fines. It seems, therefore, preposterous to link crime rate fluctuations totally with the rise and fall in the rates of imprisonment. For a very short period, such a connection does possibly make sense. The linkage is, however, difficult to sustain even over months, what to speak of years.

Several reports speak of a new awareness in the U.S. that something needs to be done to reduce the number of prisoners. This is because the numbers are becoming a scandal the world over, especially when compared to larger countries such as China, Russia, and India. Also, it has been realised that resources at the disposal of States for healthcare and higher education are shrinking, because of escalating expenditure on the corrections front. This problem can be ignored only at great peril to the well-being of the community at large.

The Pew Centres report speaks of progressive measures initiated by several States to bring down the prison population. Support to these has come from the Supreme Court in the form of decisions that permit judges greater discretion in respect of mandatory sentencing. The strategy is essentially one that aims at reducing the number of non-violent offenders inside prisons and diverting them to community-based corrections.

Also, those who would normally return to prisons for technical violations of parole/probation conditions (at one point of time, these accounted for one-third of all detainees) are placed in programmes within the community. Sanctions here include spending the day in select reporting centres, submitting to electronic monitoring systems and performing community service.

Another method that has paid dividends is enhancement of incentives for good behaviour while in prison and rewarding those who successfully complete vocational training. Texas (which perhaps has the countrys largest prison population), Kansas and Nevada are few of the States that receive a favourable mention in the Pew Centers report.

A lowering in the rate of expansion of the number of prison inmates nationally is a significant development. During 2007-08, the prison population in the country went up only by 2 per cent. In terms of number, the increase was about 25,000 as against a previous annual rise of about 86,000.

What do all these figures and administrative steps by U.S. authorities mean to us in India? Do policymakers spend time thinking of the problems associated with allowing our prison population to grow uncontrolled? I do not get the right signals. In terms of absolute numbers or rate of incarceration we may not be all that badly off. The only source of information that we, as common citizens, can lay our hands on is the Prison Statistics India, an annual publication of the National Crime Records Bureau of the Ministry of Home Affairs. Its last pull-out gives figures for 2005, when we had a total number of 1,328 prisons with a total capacity of 2,46,497. The actual number of prisoners was 3,58,368 a clear case of overcrowding, which accounts for the abysmal conditions in most of the jails.

A bulk, 66.2 per cent, of those held were undertrials, a sad commentary on our criminal justice system. It is sadder to know that a large number of those facing trials (nearly 2,000, for more than five years) will ultimately be let off after court acquittals.

These are not facts that are new or are ones that do not offer scope for study and mitigation. We need to inform, if not educate, policymakers both at the Centre and in the States, so that we have periodic exercises such as the one undertaken by the Pew Centre. There is no harm in stocktaking. Actually, more good in the form of enlightened governance could be the only outcome. Transparency in prison management and effective measures to reduce prison population will only enhance

Indias image as a civilised nation that cares for all its citizens. All this without endangering public safety in the least.

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