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Total Prison Population Down Despite Growth in Private Detention Industry
Every November the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)—one of several research agencies governed by the U.S. Department of Justice—publishes its “Corrections Populations” report. For the criminal justice community this highly anticipated annual publication is more or less tantamount to the presidential State of the Union, as its reflections and prognostications influence federal, state, and local corrections policy throughout the year. Though the report’s fundamental conclusions seem auspicious, a closer examination reveals decidedly mixed results.
The BJS finds that at yearend 2011 there were “6.98 million offenders under the supervision of the adult corrections system.” This represents a decrease of more than 98,900 offenders—roughly 1.4 percent—during the year. The BJS defines the adult corrections system population as those “offenders…under the authority of probation or parole agencies and those held in the custody of state and federal prisons or local jails.” The slight downtick in last year’s correctional population represents the third consecutive year of decline. BJS researchers attribute the majority of the reduction—83 percent—to the decrease in the aggregate probation population. The presence of roughly 80,000 fewer probationers reflects the passage of more sensible probation policies that do not criminalize minor, first-time violations. For instance, three states in 2011 passed legislation reducing the scope of their probation statutes.
The reduction of inmates in custody (-1.3), that is, those actually behind bars, mirrors the declension in total corrections population (-1.4). When data is disaggregated by institutional type, however, the story becomes a bit less simplistic. Though the population of state prisons decreased by 1.9 percent, from 1,314,446 to 1,289,376, and the population of local jails decreased by 1.8 percent, from 748,728 to 735,601, total federal prisoners increased by 3.8 percent, from 206,968 to 214,774.
And data on the fluctuation of inmates held in facilities contracted by private, for-profit companies are even more mixed. Whereas those held in privately-operated state facilities decreased by 1.8 percent last year, from 94,115 to 92,395, those held in privately-operated federal facilities ballooned by 18.2 percent, from 25,201 to 29,776. Though disturbing, this trend isn’t particularly novel. The privately- operated federal facility population has grown by nearly 200 percent since the year 2000.
And according to a report recently published by The Sentencing Project, the number of privately-held Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Marshal Service (USMS) detainees has grown at a faster rate than privately-held state or federal prisoners in the last decade. “Between 2002 and 2010,” the report finds, “privately-held ICE and USMS detainees increased by 206 percent and 322 percent, respectively. In contrast there was respective growth of 28 percent and 67 percent in the number of state and federal prisoners held in private facilities. As a result, the combined population of privately-held ICE and USMS detainees nearly equaled the number of federal prisoners in private facilities in 2010.”
Most of this growth is attributable to the enactment of Operation Streamline in 2005, a zero-tolerance “immigration” program that requires the federal criminal prosecution and imprisonment of all unlawful border crossers. In 2011, for instance, over 400,000 undocumented immigrants passed through the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) immigrant detention system, a rate nearly double that of 2005.
The program, which primarily targets migrant workers of color with no criminal history, has resulted in burgeoning caseloads in many federal district courts along the border. Prior to the implementation of “Operation Streamline,” DHS Border Patrol agents voluntarily returned first-time border crossers to their home countries or detained them and formally removed them from the United States through the civil immigration system. Historically, the U.S. Attorney’s Office reserved criminal prosecution for migrants with criminal records and for those who made repeated attempts to cross the border. Operation Streamline removed such prosecutorial discretion, requiring the criminal prosecution of all undocumented border crossers, regardless of their history.
As a result, “Operation Streamline” has mandatorily forced undocumented migrants through the federal criminal justice system and into U.S. prisons instead of routing non-violent individuals caught crossing the border into civil deportation proceedings.
Today, the U.S. maintains a sprawling web of detention centers comprised of more than 240 federal facilities, state prisons and county jails, at an annual cost of $1.7 billion to taxpayers. And according to the Detention Watch Network, close to 50 percent of these facilities are now operated by private prison companies.
Though a reduction in the total corrections population for the third consecutive year is indeed a hopeful sign, an 18 percent increase in privatized corrections at the federal level is deeply disconcerting. The most recent BJS report suggests in unequivocal terms that growth in the U.S. corrections population is highly concentrated in federal facilities, and more specifically, in federal facilities operated by for-profit, private detention firms.
Please support the Detention Watch Network’s efforts to reform the U.S. detention and deportation system by eliminating the use of private prison firms at the federal level and beyond.