By Barbara Goldberg
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mass incarceration, a problem that President Barack Obama and nearly all 2016 White House hopefuls agree must be tackled, can only be substantially reduced by easing punishments for some violent criminals, according to an analysis released on Tuesday.
A range of ideas for shrinking the swelling U.S. prison population, now at 2.2 million, was advanced by the Urban Institute, a policy think tank, in the wake of Obama's historic prison visit last month and call for congressional sentencing reform legislation.
The Urban Institute unveiled an online tool, called the Prison Population Forecaster, to measure how the changes would affect the prison population, which grew exponentially over the past four decades even as crime dropped to all-time recorded lows. (http://webapp.urban.org/reducing-mass-incarceration/index.html)
The issue especially resonates in the African-American community, with black men six times as likely as white men to be incarcerated in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.
The tool is meant to help determine what states actually need to do to trim prison populations by as much as 50 percent, said Urban Institute researcher Bryce Peterson. It uses data from 15 states that represent nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison population.
The first example focused on narcotics offenses. Many states have been reforming their drug laws, and if the number of people imprisoned for drug offenses were cut in half, that could shrink the prison population by 7 percent by 2022.
Sentencing reform for property offenses such as burglary could have an even greater effect, as would rethinking the decision to lock up parolees who commit technical violations of their release. Imprisoning half as many parole violators could reduce prison populations by 14 percent by 2022.
But with most people in state prisons incarcerated for a violent offense, the most effective method would be shortening the length of stays for some violent crimes, the researchers said.
In Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, reducing the length of incarceration for violent offenses by 15 percent would cut the prison population by 50 percent more than reducing drug admissions, the institute said.
"We believe there is no way to have a substantial impact on mass incarceration without considering violent offenses," Peterson said.
"Not every person in prison for a 'violent offense' is a murderer or an imminent danger to the public," he said. "Violent offenses include simple assaults, (like) a bar fight."
The 15 states in the forecasting tool are Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.
(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Scott Malone and Peter Cooney)