While the rest of the country is have at least a cursory discussion about what happens when we incarcerate large numbers of our citizens – especially young people – perhaps it’s time to look at the situation in Nevada.
Nevada’s incarceration rate stands at about 460/100K, or approximately 16% above the national average. There are 22 jail facilities, 8 prisons, 9 “camps,” a transition housing facility, and a restitution center. [NICIC] If there is any silver lining in these numbers, it may be that they are slowing down. In 1998 there was a 6.95% YOY increase in Nevada’s correctional population, while in the last three years reported by the Department of Corrections (2009-2011) there have been YOY decreases of nearly 1%. [NVDoc pdf] This still leaves us with a substantial population of young men incarcerated in the state of Nevada.
Notice that some 24% of the male admissions into the Nevada penal system are for drug related offenses. The picture is similar for female admissions, in which we find (Exhibit 54) that 32.81% of the admissions were for drug related offenses. 58% of the total male admissions were men under the age of 34. Approximately the same percentage applies to female admissions, 58.24% were under the age of 34. 32.81% of the total female admissions were for drug related crimes.
The current rate also places Nevada in the unfortunate category of those states in which we have more people imprisoned than living in college dormitories.
In terms of prison demographics, 45.87% of those incarcerated in Nevada are white, 28.43% are Black, 19.55% are Hispanic, 1.83% are Native American, and 2.28% are Asian. The Census Bureau reports that 9% of Nevada’s population is African American, and 27.5% are Hispanic or Latino. Whites account for 76.7%. What is obvious in these figures is that while the incarceration levels for whites and Hispanic populations are roughly similar to, or less than, the percentage of the overall population of the state; while African Americans constitute only 9% of the total population they comprise over 28% of the prison population.
Perhaps these numbers shouldn’t be too surprising because similar disparities show up when we look at high school graduation rates. The overall graduation rate in Nevada is reported as 63%, the graduation rate for whites is 72%, for Hispanics it’s 54%, and for African Americans it’s a dismal 48%. [GovSL] It costs the taxpayers of Nevada about $20,656 per incarcerated inmate [NICIC] By contrast the total cost per student in Nevada schools was calculated for FY 2011 at $8,527. [GovCSP]
Nevadans knew when Cliven Bundy, racial philosopher, began opining about the state of African Americans that he was speaking of areas like North Las Vegas, which has a 19.9% African American population, compared to a statewide average of 8.1%. [Census] North Las Vegas has a high school graduation rate of 77.1% compared to the statewide 84.6% rate, and the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree in North Las Vegas is 15% contrasted with the statewide average of 22.4%. The numbers aren’t surprising given that Clark County is the only jurisdiction with an African American population over 10%. [IndexM] The numbers associated with Clark County and North Las Vegas aren’t nearly as dramatic as those which came to national attention in the Sandtown area of Baltimore City, but they do indicate that the disparities tend to produce the same depressive effects on educational attainment and employment.
At some point we need to ask if we are truly supporting our own. For example, our state mental health agency spends about $68.32 per person in Nevada. [kkf.org] In contrast, our neighbor to the south, Arizona spends approximately $221.77, California spends $152.60, and Utah spends slightly less at $64.17. Idaho spends an appallingly low $36.64. Unfortunately, Nevada’s jails and prisons may be utilized to make up the gap in community mental health services. [TP] As of 2010 Nevada had a 9.8:1 ratio of persons who were mentally ill and incarcerated to those who were mentally ill and being treated in a hospital setting. [TAC pdf] The Nevada Department of Corrections reported to the 74th Session of the Legislature that over 1,300 prisoners were mentally ill individuals. [leg.state pdf] The most recent report indicates about 12% of inmates have mild to severe mental health issues. [DoCNV pdf]
The same report noted that between 60% and 90% of Nevada’s offenders had substance abuse problems. [leg.state pdf] It’s difficult to determine from the numbers reported in 2012 how well the prison system is addressing this issue since the report itself lists personal improvement programs for inmates without specifying which are primarily associated with drug and alcohol related issues. One would have to know that OASIS stands for Offenders Acting In Solidarity to Insure Sobriety. Or, that WINGS is Willing Inmates in Nevada Gaining Sobriety. [nv,leg.pdf]
Of course, the trick is – once having been incarcerated how does a person remain free? This is of special interest in Nevada which has a high rate of probational supervision failures. [CSGJ]
“The majority of people incarcerated or under community supervision in Nevada have substance abuse problems, and a significant percentage of those with a substance abuse problem have co-occurring mental illnesses. Treatment for these disorders is routinely mandated as a condition of release, but people are often unable to comply with this condition.”
Why? Possibly because Nevada has the second highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the nation? Because the rates of readmission to treatment for meth and amphetamine use is three times the national average? Because we have a high rate of arrests for drug and alcohol related offenses? [CSGJ]
It would also ease both prison crowding and community displacement IF the state were to ease up on the War on Drugs. We’ve not lost this war – we’ve simple forgotten what we were fighting. There are probably altogether too many Category E offenders. Specifically, NRS 453.336, possession of schedule I-IV drugs with no intent to sell, is off target if the purpose of addressing drug related crime was to attack the problem at the retail level. Why someone addicted to or having problems with an ounce or less of marijuana, or a person who has no intent to sell a scheduled or prescription drug, might face 1-4 years incarceration at $20,000+ per year expenses, defies imagination when drug treatment programs are far less expensive. Locking up the users, who in many ways may indeed be victims themselves, merely serves to exacerbate the problem of “mass incarceration.”
“Mass incarceration has proven to be an ineffective way of dealing with crime. We need to address crime punishment as a whole; especially when our prison population is mostly composed of the poor, underrepresented communities, and people of color. The fact that priority is given to imprisonment, as opposed to rehabilitation, education or other essential social programs, needs to be address with urgency.” [Ramiezgroup]
Nevada has made some progress in its drug and alcohol treatment programs, but has been loath to spend the money required to insure that residents in high crime areas, or hot spots, have affordable access to these programs in their neighborhoods. Frankly speaking, if we take it as progress that the prison system has emphasized treatment and mental health services then we’ve lost sight of the fact that it would be far more economical and socially beneficial if these services were provided before incarceration.
Nevada also needs to look at its Category E felony list and remove such items as NRS 453.336 – if a person has no intent to deal drugs but simply has prohibited items in his or her possession, then this isn’t “the war on drugs” it is simply punishing the addict or the user.
Nevada should also seek to improve the educational and vocational training available to its students. We don’t emphasize early childhood education as much as we should, given there is more than ample evidence that it works. Nor do we place as much emphasis on those elements of the curriculum which enhance instruction in the basics, such as art and music programs, as we should. Do we fund an adequate number of elementary and secondary school counselors? Do we have a sufficient reserve of classroom aides, child psychologists, local social workers, and other support personnel?
Bluntly put – wouldn’t it be better to spend more than $8,527 in total per pupil than to spend $20,656 on an inmate?