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Aging inmates, racial disproportionality, and other facts about Minnesota prisons

The number of adult prisoners incarcerated by the Minnesota Department of Corrections has grown by 62 percent since 2000. From January 2009 to January 2010, there was a 400-prisoner jump -- even as the nation saw the first year-to-year drop in the number of state prisoners since 1972 for the same period.

The latest numbers from the Minnesota Department of Corrections are worth a close look -- as are the trends.

Source: Minnesota Department of Corrections

As the prison population swells it is also aging. In 2000 there were just 348 state prisoners over the age of 50. Today that number has just about tripled to 1,024. The number of prisoners serving life sentences has nearly doubled in that same period -- from 298 in 2000 to 554 today.

According to an AP article published in August of this year:

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the number of men and women in state and federal prisons age 55 and older grew 76 percent between 1999 and 2008, the latest year available, from 43,300 to 76,400. The growth of the entire prison population grew only 18 percent in that period. David Fathi of the ACLU National Prison Project in Washington, D.C., said that one in 11 prisoners is serving a life sentence.

The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that elderly prisoners --  the fastest growing segment of the prison population, largely because of tough sentencing laws -- are three times more expensive to incarcerate than younger inmates. The ACLU estimates that it costs about $72,000 to house an elderly inmate for a year, compared with $24,000 for a younger prisoner.

Source: Minnesota Department of Corrections

More striking than all of this is the racial disproportionality in our prisons. In criminal justice circles, Minnesota has something of a reputation in this area. Here’s University of Minnesota law professor Richard Frase writing in the latest edition of Crime and Justice: A Review of Research:

Studies of state prison populations in the 1980s and early 1990s found that Minnesota’s black per capita incarceration rates were about 20 times higher than white rates -- the highest ratio reported for any state. Minnesota has done better in more recent studies, but its ratio of black to white incarceration rates is still in the top quartile.

How are we doing today? Black Minnesotans make up 4.7 percent of the state’s population and 36 percent of its prison population. By contrast, white Minnesotans make up 88.6 percent of the total population and just 53.4 percent of the prison population.

Source: Minnesota Department of Corrections

So what’s landing all of these Minnesotan’s in prison? Drugs mostly. Criminal sexual assault is the next most common offense, followed closely by homicide.

Source: Minnesota Department of Corrections

That pattern has held for most of the last decade. The exception is a period from 2000 to 2002 when criminal sexual conduct topped the list and homicide briefly moved up to second place.

Have a look at the spreadsheet I created from Minnesota Department of Corrections data. What jumps out at you? Are you surprised by anything I’ve written about here?

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Comments (4)

Can you put together a pie chart that indicates how many of the prisoners are guilty?

I'd love to see a nice pie chart that describes the correlation between the numbers of black students that fail to graduate high school with incarceration rates of blacks.

Then, just for fun, why not superimpose that chart against per capita spending on K-12 education....I'd bet my next paycheck it would be an inverse relationship.

It may be time to:

1) Give up the lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality that has resulted in so many long sentences

2) Release all drug users, and dealers who have served a good portion of their sentences;

3) As Europe and other areas do, start thinking about drug addition in the same way as we do alcoholism or addiction to gambling -- as a medical/public health problem rather than a crime.

Numbers 2 and 3 could actually reduce significantly the workloads of public defenders, judges and prison employees. We might even be able to close those private prisons we shouldn't be using to fulfill a duty of government.

Pie charts don't tell us much more than numbers, statistics - although maybe one on Opportunity as related to education, affordable housing, jobs, health care might balance, or unbalance the picture?

...and as long as this site also occasionally performs in its alternative capacity; its ability to capture information in the public arena by the use of anonymous sources, why not hear the voices - not the numbers game -of those serving in prisons...or then too, those serving time in social service agencies; in law enforcement; those who work and run the institutions...candid or serious responses may present a rare inside perspective challenging somewhat the standard concepts fetishly clinging to the pom pom concepts of "American Exceptionalism" and "Faith in our uniqueness" so embraced by The Center Of the American Experiment and the Pearlstein doctrine (Community Voices).

That could be most valid and valuable feedback...and create in a positive sense
- possibly even our own Minnesota Minn-Leaks - telling it from the mouths of those who rub elbows inside and outside the system...just a suggestion?