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COLUMN ONE

A Nation of Too Many Prisoners?

With inmate population nearing 2 million, many question the punishment over prevention approach.

February 15, 2000|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — Presumed innocent, they shuffle into the sooty, granite fortress on Tulane Avenue every morning, ankles shackled, hands chained to their hips. Every evening, at least a dozen leave Orleans Parish Criminal District Court as felons, an exodus of the desperate, foolish, heartless and addicted.

In one courtroom, Donald Smith is slapped with a 30-month prison term after being caught stumbling in the shadow of the Superdome at 1 a.m. with a crack pipe in his pocket.

Down the hall, veteran New Orleans police Det. Norbert Zenon Jr. gets a seven-month sentence for fondling a woman while purporting to examine injuries she suffered at the hand of an abusive boyfriend.

Next door, prosecutors lay out their death penalty case against Blaise Fernandez, a former high school football star who will be convicted of murdering a security guard during the robbery of a Popeyes chicken stand.

Before the day is done, Renetta Wells is looking at a maximum of 15 years for attempted cocaine distribution; after being approached near the French Quarter by an undercover cop, she helped find a dealer who could sell him a $10 rock.

And on it goes, in the grimmest courthouse in the biggest city in the strictest state in the world's most incarcerated country, a nation that is now holding an estimated 2 million of its citizens behind bars. That statistical milestone--1.24 million men and women in state prisons, 623,000 in county jails, 140,000 in federal penitentiaries--is expected to be reached sometime today, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that supports alternatives to imprisonment.

Although calculating a single day for such an occasion is an imprecise science--and clearly done for political effect--nobody denies that the 2-million era is upon us or that the growth in incarceration over the last decade represents a social experiment unlike any this country has seen.

"This is the most punishing decade on record," said Vincent Schiraldi, the institute's director, noting that the nation's inmate population at the start of the 1990s was 1 million, an unprecedented number at the time. To double that--adding another million in just 10 years--is to equal the growth of the prison population during the previous 90.

In Louisiana, Rate Is Tops in Nation

Based on the U.S. Justice Department's most recent data, 461 of every 100,000 Americans are now serving a prison sentence of at least one year. California, though home to the largest total prison population, is about average per capita, with 483 inmates per 100,000 residents. In Louisiana, the rate is 736, tops in the nation--a symbol of resolve for some here, a badge of shame for others. "I think there's a lot of people who should be in the penitentiary and who don't always go," said Harry Connick Sr., the New Orleans district attorney. "But I also think there's some who do go who perhaps shouldn't be there."

Having reached such an extraordinary tally so fast, the United States appears deeply ambivalent about what it has sown. While a plummeting crime rate stands as vindication for many, a growing number of critics--not just liberals but also fiscal conservatives and anti-government independents--is beginning to question the costs, both economic and social, of keeping so many people locked up.

Drug offenders account for the greatest percentage of new inmates, yet hardly anyone believes the drug war is any closer to being won. Sentences everywhere have become longer and sterner, but each year 500,000 ex-convicts still return to society, often less equipped to function than before. Racial disparities are so extreme--blacks are nearly seven times more likely to be incarcerated than whites--that many African Americans consider the prison system nothing short of a modern-day slave plantation. As crime rates continue to drop, even a few law-and-order politicians have begun to wonder if the $40 billion that taxpayers pony up annually for incarceration could not be better spent.

"There are some who think we ought to keep everybody in jail and throw away the key--I know, because I was one of them," said John Hainkel, president of the Louisiana Senate.

But that was before the New Orleans Republican took over as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Now, four years later, he has come to the conclusion that the state's swelling correctional budget is undermining another of his priorities--improving Louisiana's dismal investment in public schools. "It's no great mystery," said Hainkel, a believer in education's crime-fighting virtues. "The state of Minnesota has the highest rate of college graduates and the lowest rate of individuals in prison."

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