March 17, 2010

Maine bucks prison trends


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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Prisoners walk on an eighth-mile track at the Maine Correctional Center, Windham, Maine, Thursday, February 28, 2008.

Jack Milton

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Jack Milton/Staff Photographer: Thursday, February 28, 2008: The Security Building North at the Maine Correctional Center, Windham, Maine, has 46 single cells for medium custody prisoners.

Jack Milton

Staff Writer

For the first time in U.S. history, one of every 100 American adults is living behind bars, according to a report released Thursday by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The 1 percent milestone, which follows decades of steady growth in the nation's prison population, is the result of failed corrections policies, rather than an increase in crime, the report argues.

''It's not fate. This doesn't have to happen. There are solutions,'' Adam Gelb, one of the report's authors, said in a conference call with reporters. ''The real point is that getting tough on criminals has gotten tough on taxpayers.''

While offering a disheartening portrait of the nation's jails and prisons, the report provides encouraging news about Maine's corrections system, at least in comparison with what is happening in other states.

n Continuing a multi-year trend, Maine had the nation's lowest incarceration rate in 2005. One of every 366 Maine adults was behind bars, compared with one of every 87 adults of Louisiana, the state with the highest rate.

n Last year, Maine spent a smaller percentage of its general fund dollars on corrections -- 4.1 percent -- than all but four other states.

n Despite worries about prison crowding, the growth of Maine's inmate population slowed significantly in 2007. The number of Maine prison inmates increased by just 1.1 percent last year, compared with a 1.6 percent growth rate nationally.

''So in terms of comparing us with other states, I think we compare very well,'' said Denise Lord, associate commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections.

A year ago, Maine officials were predicting a 21 percent increase in the state's prison population from 2006 to 2011, based on trends from the previous five years. But last year's numbers suggest that the increase may not be as large as projected.

Lord credited the leveling off largely to a drop in the number of people who are incarcerated because of probation revocation. She said the state has been working since 2004 to improve its probation system.

One of the key changes, according to Lisa Nash, who supervises probation officers in York and Cumberland counties, is that many offenders who violate the terms of their probation but don't break the law are not being sent to prison.

She gave the example of someone who gets caught drinking while on probation; these days, he might get treatment rather than jail time.

''We're really going to explore options before we put them in jail,'' Nash said. ''We need to keep jail for the people that are dangerous.''

At the national level, the Pew report makes a similar argument. It blames the nation's incarceration boom on harsh sentencing laws and policies that lock people up for violating the terms of their parole.

The 35-page report recommends that states send fewer nonviolent offenders to prison and divert more of them into community-based programs such as drug court, where they're required to enroll in treatment.

The report also emphasizes the high cost of incarceration, finding that corrections spending by the states grew by 127 percent over the past two decades, even after adjustment for inflation.

''Americans deserve a justice system that keeps them safe but doesn't break the bank,'' said Susan Urahn, managing director of the Pew Center on the States.

The Pew report shows that U.S. incarceration rates vary widely among demographic groups. Black people are about six times as likely to be incarcerated as white people, and people in their 20s are about 15 times as likely to be behind bars as people ages 55 and older, according to the report.

Another finding: The United States up more adults locked up -- 2.3 million -- than any other nation. China, with more than a billion residents, is second, with 1.5 million people incarcerated.

Staff Writer Kevin Wack can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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