Prison Populations In State, Nation Hit All-Time High
By KATIE MELONE, Courant Staff Writer
February 29, 2008
The prison population in Connecticut and the nation reached an all-time high in January, reflecting the quandary many states face of maintaining public safety while managing overcrowded prisons in a $50 billion-a-year system.
A report released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, a self-described non-partisan group, found that 2.3 million Americans — or roughly 1 in 100 adults — are living behind bars, and that the consistent increase in the country's prison population over the past 20 years has been driven by policy choices, not by spikes in crime or the nation's population.
"Getting tough on criminals has also gotten tough on taxpayers," but there hasn't been a corresponding reduction in crime, said Adam Gelb, a project manager on the study. "Leaders from both parties are saying, 'We're not getting our money's worth out of prisons.'"
A 127 percent increase in prison spending by states since 1987 accompanied the spike in the prison population nationwide in the same period, according to the study. In Connecticut, for example, Gov. M. Jodi Rell has proposed spending roughly $668 million on the Department of Correction, the state's largest employer, in the upcoming fiscal year. The state is one of only five that spends dollar-for-dollar as much or more on corrections as it does on higher education.
"While states don't necessarily chose between higher education and corrections, a dollar spent in one area is unavailable for another," the study stated.
Echoing the nationwide statistics, the state's 19,438 inmates recorded on Jan. 1 exceeded the previous high of 19,216 in 2003, according to Department of Correction figures on its website. The Pew study puts Connecticut's population at an even higher figure — 20,784 — but that figure may include inmates living in halfway houses.
The Department of Correction does not know how the Pew study got the 20,784 figure, said Brian Garnett, a spokesman. According to the Pew study's methodology notes, the numbers came from the Association of State Correctional Administrators, which collected the figures from each state's department of correction.
The state's own figures place the prison population 536 inmates higher than it was in January 2007. Much of the increase is attributed to a five-month ban on parole Rell instituted in September immediately after a parolee stole a car at knifepoint and two months after the brutal Cheshire killings of a mother and two daughters. Two parolees were charged in the killings.
In the months leading up to the Cheshire killings, the prison population caught the attention of state officials because it started to approach record levels for the first time in a few years. In 2003, the state reversed a 15-year rise in prison inmates, and in February 2007, Pew projected that Connecticut would be one of only two states to maintain a level prison population through 2011.
Regardless of the exact figures, the Pew study's authors say it's time for states to focus on incarcerating only those individuals who pose a threat to public safety and find a mix of alternatives and sanctions for nonviolent offenders to lower incarceration rates.
Pew has held Connecticut up as a model for instituting policies to reduce the number of parolees and probationers sent back to the prison system for technical violations. Connecticut's Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz, too, has focused on preparing inmates for their eventual release and transition to society, and holds up as an example community release programs like the state's halfway house system, which has been shown to cut an inmate's risk of recidivism.
"Connecticut is not just trying to put new programs in place, but we're carefully researching what we're doing so we can document that what we're doing isn't contrary to public safety and what we're doing is having a demonstrable effect on the prison population," said William Carbone, the executive director of the judicial department's court support services division, which has focused on probationers who are susceptible to technical violations. "We're now seeing the fruits of that strategy."
But the state may need a quicker, more widespread fix to the state's overcrowding problem.
Rell has proposed funding for offender re-entry and for offenders caught in a cycle of being released from prison to homelessness.
As prison unions, inmates and some legislators are again decrying the overcrowding, Lantz has declined to define the prison system's capacity, saying the system can handle fluctuations.
"You're either going to have to build more prisons or you're going to have to increase the social service and community service operations," said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D- Stamford, co-chairman of the judiciary committee. "Doing nothing isn't an option."
"The legislature has a proper role in forming public policy, but certainly the executive branch has a responsibility," he added. "As the managers on the front line, they need to share with us their best estimates of how they handle the ballooning prison population and they haven't done that thus far."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at