Report: U.S. Could Cut Prison Population, Better Serve People with Mental Illnesses
Nearly 40 percent of people are behind bars for no compelling public safety reason, according to a new report. The Brennan Center for Justice report: “How Many Americans are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?” looks at state and federal prison populations, and suggests numbers could be drastically cut without endangering the public.
Fifty-four percent of the nearly 1.5 million Americans in prison are there for nonviolent offenses. Just as striking is that 79 percent of prisoners suffer either from drug addiction or mental illnesses.
Rachael Seevers is an attorney with Disability Rights Washington.
“I don’t think it’s a population that anybody in those institutions anticipated treating,” she said. “They’re not treatment facilities, they’re not intended to be treatment facilities, they’re not set up to be treatment facilities. So putting people who need high-level mental-health treatment in correctional facilities is not appropriate.”
There are about 17,000 inmates in Washington state prisons, according to Disability Rights Washington. Seevers said her organization has worked with the Washington State Department of Corrections in recent years concerning state prisons’ punishment of people who threaten or engage in self-harm and who likely have a mental disorder.
The report details the ways in which states and the federal government could decrease the prison population. It proposes decreasing the number of incarcerated to fewer than 900,000 and at the same time increasing the percent of inmates in prison for violent offenses.
Senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice Lauren-Brooke Eisen said many states already have succeeded in reducing the prison population by expanding the use of probation, drug treatment and re-entry programs.
“Twenty-seven states in the past decade have reduced both crime and incarceration,” she said. “So that’s a pretty striking statistic indicating that we don’t need these massive prison populations to keep our country safe.”
Another issue is conditions inside prisons, which host large populations in this country. Seevers said while Disability Rights Washington has the ability to investigate conditions in prisons to a certain extent, it struggles in this closed system.
“The need for independent prison oversight is something we really are trying to highlight out here because it’s something that I think six or seven states have offices that do that kind of oversight, but not a lot,” Seevers added.
Featured Image: There are about 17,000 people in Washington state prisons. (babawawa/Pixabay)