A new report says Iowa’s prison population will grow by 16% in the next five years, more than any state in the region except South Dakota. The "Public Safety, Public Spending" report by the Pew Charitable Trust looked over data from all fifty states on their prison systems, and Project Director Adam Gelb says by the year 20-11, there will be 1.7 million Americans behind bars, and it’ll take more prisons to hold them all.
"The report found that ‘getting tough on criminals’ has gotten tough on taxpayers," Gelb says. He says the nation’s spending 60-billion dollars on corrections now, up from 9 billion 25 years ago, and the research projects that we’ll be spending another 27 and-a-half-billion in just five years. As more laws are passed, and offenders are arrested and begin service sentences, the population behind bars is expected to keep rising.
That report predicts the total prison population in the country will surpass one-point-7-million people, meaning that by the year 2011 we’ll have one out of every 178 Americans will be living in prison. In Iowa, the sixteen-percent projected growth would take the population behind bars from the current 88-hundred inmates to a little over ten-thousand.
Gelb says just two factors affect the prison population — how many people are being sentenced to prison terms, and how long they stay. He says population growth plays an important part, and so do demographics — how many people are in which age, income and sociological categories. Another influence is public policy.
Policy decisions include sentencing law like mandatory minimums for various kinds of offenders, like drug offenders. Parole boards and other local factors determine how long people actually spend behind bars serving those sentences, so he says you see big variations not only from region to region of the country, but from state to state.
The report projects a wide range of growth just within the Midwest — for instance, Iowa’s expected to increase its prison population by 16%, Missouri by 6%, and South Dakota by 23%. "As you can see," Gelb says, "That tremendous variance is not an artifact of population, it is a result of the policy choices that are made by leaders in each state." He says communities have worked to come up with all kinds of solutions like drug courts and re-entry programs for prisoners about to finish their sentences. The new science of risk assessment helps parole boards sort low-risk from high-risk offenders, he says.
Those new strategies are changing the debate in criminal justice, Gelb says. He’s been in the field for 20 years and says he’s never before seen the kind of bipartisan agreement that we can’t just "build our way out" of the prison population crisis. He says they’re agreeing to take another look at who’s paid the 22-thousand dollars a year it takes to keep a prisoner "behind the walls." The report says community corrections, re-entry counseling and strict parole enforcement are other ways to handle offenders without having to spend on building more prisons in the years to come.