WASHINGTON The number of people in U.S. prisons has risen eight-fold since 1970, with little impact on crime but at great cost to taxpayers and society, researchers said in a report calling for a major justice-system overhaul.
The report on Monday cites examples ranging from former vice-presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby to a Florida woman's two-year sentence for throwing a cup of coffee to make its case for reducing the U.S. prison population of 2.2 million -- nearly one-fourth of the world's total.
It recommends shorter sentences and parole terms, alternative punishments, more help for released inmates and decriminalizing recreational drugs. It said the steps would cut the prison population in half, save $20 billion a year and ease social inequality without endangering the public.
But the recommendations run counter to decades of broad U.S. public and political support for getting tough on criminals through longer, harsher prison terms and to the Bush administration's anti-drug and strict-sentencing policies.
"President (George W.) Bush was right," in commuting Libby's perjury sentence this year as excessive, the report said. But he should also have commuted the sentences of hundreds of thousands of other Americans, it said.
"Our contemporary laws and justice system practices exacerbate the crime problem, unnecessarily damage the lives of millions of people (and) waste tens of billions of dollars each year," it said.
The report was produced by the JFA Institute, a Washington criminal-justice research group, and its authors included eight criminologists from major U.S. public universities. It was funded by the Rosenbaum Foundation and by financier and political activist George Soros' Open Society Institute.
The Justice Department dismissed the recommendations and cited findings that about 25 percent of the violent-crime drop in the 1990s can be attributed to increases in imprisonment.
"The United States is experiencing a 30-year low in crime, in large part due to the tough enforcement actions we've taken in the last decade," department spokesman Peter Carr said.
But there are signs of shifting attitudes on sentencing policies. Some financially strapped states are shortening sentences and Congress is moving to pass increased help for released prisoners, said Executive Director Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, which has advocated alternatives to long sentences.
"Compared to where we were in the mid-(19)90s, it's been a very significant change," Mauer said.
More than 1.5 million people are now in U.S. state and federal prisons, up from 196,429 in 1970, the report said. Another 750,000 people are in local jails. The U.S. incarceration rate is the world's highest, followed by Russia, according to 2006 figures compiled by Kings College in London.
Although the U.S. crime rate began declining in the 1990s it is still about the same as in 1973, the JFA report said. But the prison population has soared because sentences have gotten longer and people who violate parole or probation, even with minor lapses, are more likely to be imprisoned.
"The system is almost feeding on itself now. It takes years and years and years to get out of this system and we do not see any positive impact on the crime rates," JFA President James Austin, a co-author of the report, told a news conference.
The report said the prison population is projected to grow by another 192,000 in five years, at a cost of $27.5 billion to build and operate additional prisons.
At current rates, one-third of all black males, one-sixth of Latino males, and one in 17 white males will go to prison during their lives. Women represent the fastest-growing segment of the prison population, the report said.
"The massive incarceration of young males from mostly poor- and working-class neighborhoods, and the taking of women from their families and jobs, has crippled their potential for forming healthy families and achieving economic gains," it said.
(Editing by David Alexander and Cynthia Osterman)