Seek prison alternatives

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Despite a population that has been nearly stagnant for the last two and a half decades in this state, the prison population has increased dramatically.

The prison population increase has resulted from a combination of increased drug related crime and mandatroy minimum sentences.

Several new prisons, mostly medium security, have been built during that period. A consultant has told state officials that more than $250 million in construction is needed to accommodate growth in Iowa's prisons and community corrections programs.

The state's prisons held more than 8,800 inmates as of last week - 22 percent over capacity. The prison population is forecast to grow to more than 11,300 by January 2016.

A draft study by Durrant Group of Dubuque recommends major improvements at the prisons in Fort Madison, Mitchellville and Newton, as well as upgrades at community corrections centers.

The growing percentage of people behind bars, not only in Iowa but across the nation, is disturbing for a number of reasons. It is an expensive way to deal with criminals and rarely changes their behavior after release.

The term rehabilitation hasn't been current for quite some time in departments of corrections. Prisons exist as a deterrent to those who might consider crime in the absence of consequences. The crime deterrent effect of prisons has had limited success since we continue to increase the number of people we send to prison.

One program that has a better success rate than prison, at least in the pilot program in Woodbury County, is the drug court program, which provides supervision, guidance and regular drug testing to those enrolled in the program.

Not all those with a drug problem leading to arrest are eligible for the program and it is not 100 percent successful. The program is too new in Cherokee county to determine its success rate but it has to be considered a cost effective alternative to prison for some people.

Community based corrections programs not involving incarceration should be used whenever possible for cost purposes.

We keep building more prisons despite the fact that imprisonment is extremely expensive as well as ineffective.