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More Inmates Than Ever, But Do Jail Terms Work?

THE number of Americans behind bars reached another record last year: 3.1 million. That's an incarceration rate of 519 prisoners - in federal, state, and local facilities - for every 100,000 residents of the United States. Only Russia, with 558 inmates per 100,000 people, has a higher rate.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based private organization that favors alternatives to incarceration, issues a yearly report analyzing the figures. Its latest total, published today, attributes the climbing incarceration rate in the US largely to what it calls a ``new `law and order' climate'' that exaggerates crime rates and fastens on such policy options as ``three strikes you're out'' laws, which mandate a life sentence after three violent felonies.

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Marc Mauer, author of the Sentencing Project report, says he doesn't downplay the importance of crime as a national issue. But he questions the effectiveness of increased prison time. ``It's ironic that after 20 years of steadily increasing incarceration, I don't know one person who feels safer,'' Mr. Mauer says.

Moreover, much of the increased incarceration springs from drug possession and other nonviolent offenses, says Mauer. A recent report from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), notes that drug offenses accounted for 46 percent of newly incarcerated inmates between 1980 and 1992. But increased arrests and convictions for aggravated assault were another huge factor, accounting for ``nearly a third of the total increase in prison admissions for serious offenses.''

The Sentencing Project report makes a number of recommendations, including repealing mandatory sentencing laws, treating drug use as a public-health problem rather than a criminal-justice problem, and expanding alternatives to prison sentences.

The Sentencing Project's conclusions, however, are strongly rebutted by other analysts. Paul McNulty, a Justice Department official under President Bush and head of the First Freedom Coalition in Washington, says the incarceration rate may in fact not be high enough. Citing victimization statistics compiled by BJS, Mr. McNulty argues that millions of violent crimes go unreported each year. About 550,000 arrests are made yearly for violent crimes - murder, robbery, aggravated and sexual assault - and of those, only 150,000 result in convictions, he says. About 60 percent of the people convicted actually go to prison.

This points to an ``accountability gap,'' says McNulty. ``It reveals that we have very little accountability in the form of prison for crime committed in America.'' He also asserts that alternatives already exist in probation and parole programs.

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