New Report: 39% of Prisoners Unnecessarily Behind Bars

COLUMBIA, S.C.  – A new national study of U.S. prisons says 39 percent of all inmates are locked up for no compelling public safety reason. The study came from three years of research by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

It found that 25 percent of prisoners nationwide, about 364,000 inmates, are almost all non-violent, low-level offenders who would be better served by treatment, probation, or community service. The study says another 14 percent, about 212,000 inmates, have served enough of their time that releasing them within the year would pose little to no risk to public safety.

The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Brennan Center Senior Counsel Lauren-Brooke Eisen says, “Too many people end up in prison in the first place, when alternatives like treatment would work much better. Still others are locked up for too long and research shows those sentences are ineffective. When what you’re doing isn’t working, it’s time to rethink it. We hope our recommendations will jump-start a conversation.”

The study recommends that states eliminate prison for lower-level crimes in most cases, and that they reduce minimum and maximum sentences that are on the books now to be more proportionate to the crimes committed. It says the changes would save U.S. taxpayers almost $20 billion a year.

South Carolina is already following both of those recommendations and has been singled out by another national group, the Pew Center on the States, as a national leader. South Carolina lawmakers passed a sentencing reform law in 2010 that gives longer sentences for serious, violent crimes while keeping most non-violent offenders out of prison, giving them probation, community service, or treatment instead.

SC Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling says, “Sentencing reform started in 2010 and since that time we have closed six prisons, all low-level prisons. We have kind of looked at a different way of dealing with low-level offenders. In South Carolina, what we’re doing now is we’re locking people up for a long time that we’re afraid of, not that we’re mad at.”

Since the new law went into effect, the state’s crime rate has gone down and so has the recidivism rate, which is the number of inmates who end back in prison within three years after their release.

Before the law, the state expected to have a prison population of almost 28,000 right now. Instead, it has a prison population of less than 21,000. “If we were at 27- or 28,000 people, we would’ve had to build 3 or 4 more prisons at a rate of about $50 to $70 million each prison. We would’ve had to staff them, fed, all those things. So that is the cost avoidance that Pew said we’re doing,” Stirling says.

Between not having to build and staff new prisons and closing six low-level ones, the Pew Center estimates the changes have saved South Carolina taxpayers $471 million.

Before the law, the state ranked 11th highest for the number of people in prison per 100,000 people. Now the state ranks 20th.

Stirling says it’s not just the sentencing reform law, though. The state changed its policy on youthful offenders, keeping many of them out of prison as well. Instead, they get mentors who closely monitor their lives, including drug testing the offenders. The supervisors also make sure the youthful offenders are either in school or working. The recidivism rate for youthful offenders has gone from about 55 percent before the changes to about 15 percent now.

The state is also focusing more on rehabilitation instead of just punishment. Before inmates are released from prison, they’re signed up at the state Department of Employment and Workforce. They get training on how to look for jobs, how to write a résumé, and how to handle job interviews.