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CRIME WATCH : Nation of Convicts

Nothing in the numbers of America’s penal, probation and parole situation looks good. Costs and caseloads are exploding, and last year a record 5.1 million men and women were lodged somewhere in the system. That’s 2.7% of the U.S. population.

Now, say population experts, the nation’s so-called “youth cohort” is expanding again. These are young Americans, aged 16 to 24, and many statisticians say an increase in the cohort is a sure sign that crime will increase as well.

State and federal prison populations pushed past 1 million last summer and continue to climb, largely because of tougher sentencing laws enacted from the start of the Reagan Administration in 1981. Note the “three-strikes” law in California, which leads the nation in state and federal prisoners.

Overall, according to a just-released Justice Department study, state and federal prison populations across the country have increased 213% since 1980, more than tripling.

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The swelling numbers demand more prisons, but also new thinking. The growth in the segment of drug violators in the penal system, each imprisoned at an estimated cost of $25,000 a year, argues for targeting tax dollars instead on preventive-education programs. From 1980 to 1992, the proportion of drug arrests that resulted in prison admissions grew fivefold.

Try to fight the problem more vigorously on the front end. Keep drugs out of the hands of kids who otherwise will become peddlers themselves to maintain their habits.


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