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State by State, Prison Crowding Spurred by Mandatory Drug Sentences Becomes National Issue


June 1993

State governments nationwide are struggling with a prison crisis fueled by more than a decade of tough mandatory drug sentences that has left governors and legislators with a dearth of cells, money, and options (Francis X. Clines, "Prisons Run Out Of Cells, Money And Choices," New York Times, 5/28/93, B7).

The crisis is typified by Florida, which is now seeking tax hikes to fund an additional 21,000 prison cells or be faced with the horrifying prospect of releasing violent criminals, who, unlike drug offenders, are not subject to mandatory minimums. Nationwide, there are more than one million Americans behind bars in state, local, and federal penal institutions.

Despite the increasingly tough sentencing practices, serious crimes have not declined, and a collective disgust with mandatory sentencing and its consequences appears to be growing. Judges, corrections officials, and some legislators are speaking out in favor of repeal of mandatory minimums, and in favor of alternatives to incarceration. The national incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1971 with no appreciable drop in the crime rate, according to Rutgers University criminal justice scholar Todd Clear.

While some states have already adopted more progressive policies, returning sentencing authority to judges and providing alternatives to imprisonment, in others, legislators continue to balk at repealing mandatory minimums. In Texas, for example, the average sentence meted out has risen from 6.5 years to 9.8 years in the last decade, but actual time served has dropped from 2.4 years to 1.7 years as prison overcrowding forces hundreds of early releases. In the early 1980s, Texas legislators launched the biggest prison building program in United States history, aimed at tripling prison space to more than 80,000 beds by 1996.

But with budgetary restraints occurring nationwide, legislators are faced with either hiking taxes or cutting other programs to pay for more prisons, without being able to offer the public any assurance they will be safer. Despite the prison-building program, Texas has been one of the states most severely challenged by overcrowding. Unwilling to roll back mandatory minimums for drug criminals, state corrections officials have been forced into releasing hundreds of other criminals, including violent felons, sometimes with fatal consequences. [See item by Stephanie Mencimer from April Washington Monthly in May NewsBriefs under "Mandatory Minimums".]